Songs That Broke My Heart: Hallelujah by John Cale

John Cale Hallelujah

Con­ven­tional wis­dom will tell you nobody did Leonard Cohen’s “Hal­lelu­jah” bet­ter than Jeff Buck­ley. The few who dis­agree are likely of the opin­ion that noth­ing beats the orig­i­nal. Here’s a third opin­ion: the per­son who trans­formed Cohen’s song into the mod­ern stan­dard it is today was John Cale.

As I started to com­pile songs for this Songs That Broke My Heart series, I found myself not­ing more than a few cover ver­sions I found “sad­der” than the orig­i­nals. Maybe some songs have more pain embed­ded in them than their orig­i­nal cre­ators real­ized, or were capa­ble of express­ing. Per­haps the orig­i­nal artists pur­pose­fully obscured the darker themes for the lis­tener to slowly untease, only to have another artist come along later and lay it all bare.

The now-iconic song “Hal­lelu­jah” has a com­pli­cated lin­eage. Leonard Cohen’s orig­i­nal was released on the album Var­i­ous Posi­tions in 1984, and has since been over­shad­owed by a seem­ingly end­less parade of cover ver­sions. For­mer Vel­vet Under­ground mem­ber John Cale began it all with a spare, vocal-and-piano recita­tion for the 1991 Cohen trib­ute album I’m Your Fan. Time has obscured Cale’s ver­sion about as much as Cohen’s orig­i­nal, but it’s still the tem­plate influ­enc­ing nearly every sub­se­quent rendition.

The most idio­syn­cratic take came from U2’s Bono on yet another Cohen trib­ute album, Tower of Song (1995). It now sounds very dated, from the brief-lived moment in the mid-to-late nineties when the trance and elec­tron­ica gen­res flirted with the main­stream. Jeff Buck­ley and K.D. Lang each scored hits based on Cale’s ver­sion, and numer­ous ama­teur per­for­mances on Amer­i­can Idol finally broke the song into the main­stream con­scious­ness (relive some of them here, if you can bear it). The song is now a cliché, but retains its abil­ity to push emo­tional but­tons even when per­formed robot­i­cally by Justin Tim­ber­lake on the “Hope for Haiti Now” telethon in 2010 and by K.D. Lang again at the 2010 Win­ter Olympics open­ing ceremony.

The worst abuse of all, how­ever, was when direc­tor Zack Sny­der mis­ap­pro­pri­ated Cohen’s orig­i­nal record­ing for a pre­pos­ter­ous sex scene in the super­hero psy­chodrama Watch­men (read The Dork Report review). Granted, it must be said that Cohen delib­er­ately crafted his lyrics to be flex­i­ble, and has him­self per­formed dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions over the years. Buckley’s ver­sion found a markedly sex­ual inter­pre­ta­tion, and were he still with us, he might have approved of the song’s use in Watch­men. Cohen him­self told the Guardian in 2009:

“I was just read­ing a review of a movie called Watch­men that uses it, and the reviewer said ‘Can we please have a mora­to­rium on Hal­lelu­jah in movies and tele­vi­sion shows?’ And I kind of feel the same way. I think it’s a good song, but I think too many peo­ple sing it.“ 

With such a wide vari­ety of ren­di­tions, it’s clear the beauty is all in the par­tic­u­lar vocalist’s deliv­ery. Too many, how­ever, bury any real human emo­tion under moun­tains of over­pro­duced strings and histri­on­ics, or in Bono’s case, trance beats and an ill-advised falsetto. For me, John Cale’s ele­gantly min­i­mal­ist inter­pre­ta­tion is the one for the ages, per­haps even moreso than Cohen’s original.

Buy any of these fine prod­ucts from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report:


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