It’s been a long, strange journey for Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” from a barely-remembered track on his 1984 album Various Positions to a modern standard, one of the most covered and overplayed records of the past decade. And as I sat in the Savoy Theatre in Glace Bay, Cape Breton last week, and as Cohen’s band kicked into the song’s opening drum beat and the organ began to play, I couldn’t help but reflect on the song’s path to that very moment and wonder whether it was worth it.
Oh, there’s been brilliance along the way, for sure. Unassuming in its original version, Cohen refined the song through his live performances; the 1994 Cohen Live record features a 1988 version that retained only the final verse from the original track but is far more memorable. Still, many (myself included) consider Jeff Buckley’s cover of the song from his first (and only) full-length album Grace to be about as definitive as the song has ever gotten. Cohen’s version had a slice of humour to it, and played like a twisted lounge anthem. Cool as that was, Buckley’s was so haunting that it gave the song a new profoundness. It was the sound of loneliness, made even more haunting after the singer’s untimely passing.
Yet what few realize is that Buckley’s rendition actually one step removed from Cohen’s; he’s really covering John Cale’s rendition from the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. It’s that version that showed up in Shrek back in 2001, and it’s that strange appearance that launched the song’s bizarre revival. The tipping point, though, was when The O.C. – at the peak of its popularity – used Buckley’s version to soundtrack the closing scene of its first season finale (the show would later use a cover of the song by Imogen Heap over Marissa Cooper’s deaths scene).
Since then, it’s been impossible to escape “Hallelujah.” Last week, Andrew Sullivan’s blog drew my attention to this 2007 post over at clapclap.org, the most comprehensive analysis I’ve seen of the song’s newfound popularity. It charts “Hallelujah’s” stratospheric rise this decade in both the number of covers and appearances in TV shows and movies. But what the numbers don’t show is the soul-sucking that occurs when a genuinely great song becomes associated with every show-closing montage and every slow-motion sad scene; when everyone and their mother thinks that they can add something new to the song and proceed to play all meaning out of the track. It begs the question…when a song belongs to everyone, does it really belong to anyone anymore?
I was dreading the moment I described earlier – when Cohen, in the middle of his fantastic concert, prepared to break into his modern classic, a song unappreciated in its time but rediscovered and then made tired by a whole new generation 20 years later. I feared not only how the crowd would react – likely giving the song more praise than it deserved – but how Cohen would tackle it. The song hasn’t been his for years; what could he give to it that hasn’t already been tried and worn out by hundreds of others?
How foolish of me.
Cohen’s rendition of “Hallelujah” that night wasn’t just a performance; it was a rescue mission. It was saving the song from redundancy, from the endless repetition and retread it has suffered under for years. Gone in an instant was Shrek, The O.C., the hacks and the heroes alike who’ve tackled the song over the years. Vanished were even the song’s more brilliant moments, the John Cales and Jeff Buckleys of the world. With his amazing band holding him up, Leonard Cohen tore into every biblical reference, every sexual allusion, every strained tone as if it were his last, as if all his sadness, joy and fear were laid out before us on the stage. I sat in my seat, equal parts shocked and awed.
I had feared that the audience might give the song more praise than it deserved. Instead, in a brilliant daze, I was the first one on my feet.