Songs That Broke My Heart: Hallelujah by John Cale

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.

Albums That Broke My Heart: Sea Change by Beck

You could throw darts at the tracklist from Beck’s 2002 album Sea Change and each song you hit would be sadder than the last. Hence this deviation in format from our ongoing playlist of Songs That Broke My Heart… call it an Album That Broke My Heart.

Beck had always been equal parts folk (Mutations) and weird (Odelay), and perhaps at his best when he combined the two. Although his sense of humor and absurdism usually dominates, a pronounced darkness is often present. All of these tendencies were on display on his breakthrough single “Loser”, which, together with the roughly contemporaneous “Creep” by Radiohead, was part of a groundswell of indie rock self-loathing in the mid 1990s.

Perhaps wary of being typecast as the dude with the emotionally detached and quirkily abstract lyrics (walking, one might say, in the Talking Heads’ shoes), and of being too closely associated with the production techniques of The Dust Brothers and the videos of Spike Jonze, Beck took an unexpected genre swerve in 2002. Sea Change was an album-length outpouring of anxiety, grief, and loneliness. Its low-key emotional honesty was probably alienating to most of his fans, and its morose mood no doubt not very attractive to new listeners.

After listening to only a few songs from the album, you wouldn’t need to consult Wikipedia to find out if these songs were the result of somebody breaking up with him. But if you did, you’d learn that this batch of songs dates from when he discovered his longtime fiancée was cheating on him.

Standout tracks for me are “Guess I’m Doing Fine” and “Lost Cause”:

Songs That Broke My Heart: Days in the Trees (Reich) by No-Man

Any playlist of sad songs I might compile must include No-Man, but it was no easy task to select only one piece from a songbook positively chock full of them. To make my job a bit easier, I went back to the band’s beginnings.

Similar in style to their first breakout single “Colours” (a dramatic reimagining of Donovan’s mid-60s folk-pop hit), “Days in the Trees” is very much an artifact of early 90s minimalist art-pop. Despite its superficially dated production, the song is quintessential No-Man: Tim Bowness’ melancholy vocals hovering over Steven Wilson’s looped breakbeat, accompanied by Ben Coleman’s dramatic violin and very little else.

I found myself drawn to a relatively obscure alternate version subtitled “Reich”, first released in 1992 on the virtually impossible to find original EP and the subsequent mini-album Lovesighs – An Entertainment, and now available on the retrospective anthology All the Blue Changes. In a personal reassessment, Bowness expresses reservations about the mix and performances in the released version, but concedes that “Reich is a piece I still love”.

Utterly unlike a prototypically unimaginative remix in which rigid disco beats are bolted onto scraps of a song, this version has only the most tenuous of connections to its source material. It omits Bowness’ vocals entirely, in favor of a gently repeating keyboard arpeggio. The title alludes to composer Steve Reich’s brand of systems music, which reached its hypnotic apotheosis in Music for 18 Musicians. A generation of electronic musicians expanded upon Reich’s interlocking patterns, and Reich himself later completed the circle by experimenting with electronica and remixing on his 1999 album Reich Remixed.

The stark ambient soundscape of “Days in the Trees (Reich)” provides an atmosphere for an astonishing soliloquy extracted from David Lynch’s seminal TV series Twin Peaks. Donna (Laura Flynn Boyle) is a teenager disillusioned by unsavory revelations regarding her best friend Laura’s drug abuse and sexual misadventures. Over the course of the series, she is exposed to even greater depths of corruption and depravity in her seemingly idyllic small American town.

Lara Flynn Boyle as Donna in Twin Peaks
“It was the first time I ever fell in love.”

While pursuing information on her own, Donna finds it necessary to ingratiate herself to a lonely male stranger. The mode of seduction she chooses is to recount the story of her first kiss. Her ploy quickly becomes a real confession, even an uncomfortably intimate flirtation. It’s an ostensibly happy memory, but her state of bliss over an event in the distant past is shot through with melancholy over a sublime moment long gone. Forced to confront the profound darkness festering in her community, this young woman prematurely mourns simpler times forever out of reach. Her tale portrays herself as a girl just beginning to sense that sexuality was a dangerous force her friend had already embraced but she couldn’t yet harness.

Boyle may not be one of the world’s most celebrated actors, but her performance in this scene is nothing less than stunning. Bowness and Wilson edited and condensed her monologue, but opted to leave in the sound effects of a cigarette lighter and her exhalation, effectively providing an audio vérité percussion track. Here is a full transcript of the truncated version that appears in “Days in the Trees (Reich)”:

“This is from a long time ago, is that ok? I was about thirteen years old, fourteen maybe. We were going to the Roadhouse to meet boys. They’re about twenty years old. And they’re nice to us. And they make us feel like we’re older. Rick asks if we wanna go party and Laura says ‘yes’, and all of a sudden I feel this knot building up in my stomach. But when Laura gets in the truck with Rick, I go anyway. A stream in the woods, and when I think, it’s pale and light out. Laura starts to dance around the boys. She begins to move her hips back and forth. And we take off our clothes. I know the boys are watching. Laura starts to kiss Josh and Rick. I don’t know what to do, so I swim away. I feel like I want to run, but I don’t. He kisses my hand and then me. I can still feel that kiss. His lips are warm and sweet. My heart jumps. He’s talking but I can’t hear him. It was the first time I ever fell in love.”

The brief song drifts away on her last word.


Further reading:


You’re reading an entry in The Dork Report’s ongoing mixtape The Songs That Broke My Heart. Get started with the introduction or dive right in. Know a sad song you’d like to see added to the playlist? Please let me know in the comments below.

The Songs That Broke My Heart

Rock ‘n’ roll is not an everyday conversation topic around our family table, but the improbable longevity of The Rolling Stones was remarkable enough to come up once during dinner. I had recently listened to “Sympathy for the Devil” for the first time in a while, and remarked upon how surprisingly dark and intense it was, so much so that it gave me chills. My grandmother asked why, then, would I deliberately listen to something that unsettled me?

She had a point. Upon reflection, I’ve found that most of the music I hold dear is chilling (like the aforementioned ode to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita), chilly (like some of the more academic, brainy music by Brian Eno, Philip Reich, or Robert Fripp), or just plain cold (pretty much everything else). Some have subject matter that makes you want to jump out a window, some just sound like they do, and some may not be sad per se, but are rather so painfully beautiful I almost can’t bear listening to them.

How on earth did incurable sad sacks like The Cure, Nick Drake, or Kurt Cobain become pop stars? Why do we listen to the likes of “Hallelujah”, “Mad World”, or “Hurt” for fun? The answer is simple, but opens a can of worms: prehistoric humans almost didn’t invent music for entertainment or personal expression, but rather as a component to ritual, spirituality, and community.

To think of music as merely entertaining or escapist is to belittle an entire art form with limitless capabilities. Even at its best, it can be dissonant and ugly (such as György Ligeti’s Requiem, which still sounds alien today in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) just as easily as it can be pretty and moving (Johan Pachelbel’s Canon in D, so lovely it has passed into cliché and back again). It’s possible to make the same point about other oft belittled media, such as comics — where the uninitiated may be unable or unwilling to accept that the same format that stars Ziggy and Superman can also be as trenchant as Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury or as literary as Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

Hence this new series of short essays exclusively for The Dork Report: The Songs That Broke My Heart, in effect a playlist of melancholy, misery, and loneliness. It is not meant to be an objective list of the saddest songs of all time, but rather a personal compilation of songs that create an emotional response in me now, at this time in my life. But first, I’m going to start with something slightly more esoteric. Watch this space for my thoughts on No-Man’s “Days in the Trees (Reich)”.

The Songs That Broke My Heart:

  1. No-Man: Days in the Trees (Reich)
  2. Beck: Sea Change
  3. John Cale: Hallelujah