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March 2017



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twain & tesla

the baffled king composing hallelujah

So how old are you, and what's your favorite version of "Hallelujah"?

In continutation of the Gross Leonard Cohen Earworm (apparently "Hallelujah" is the meme that will not quit this week) of the last few days, inauroillium just posted an an interesting link about the evolution and major versions of the song in a comment thread on cvillette's journal.

It is here, at clapclap.org.

I read it with interest. It's really fascinating.

In full disclosure, I should mention that I have... 14 versions of "Hallelujah," by 11 different artists, including three Cohen versions. (I would like the k.d. lang live versions and the Imogen Heap, but haven't tracked them down yet. Really though, I think the jewel of the collection is the Willie Nelson. He also does a bangup job with "Bird on a Wire.")

And I'm also going to talk in sweeping generalities here, and please be aware that I am talking about observed trends rather than categorical truths here, and that I'm aware that sweeping generalities are bull puckey.

But I think I really disagree with the reviewer's conclusion. I suspect that what's going on here is actually the opposite process, in which a bunch of forty/thirty/twenty-something musicians who grew up as part of far more ironical generations have found this amazing song seemingly neglected by their elders, and are covering the hell out of it.

And being limited by not being what Cohen is--which is to say, a mad freaking genius of irony and layering and evocation, the musical prodigies in my peer group are just not managing to get into it what he does. But in simplifying it they are making it more accessible to a wider range of people.

I have no idea how old the critic is, but the important data point he's missing is that a statistically significant chunk of my generation (I'm 36) and that of my immediately younger peers (in their twenties) love Leonard Cohen. Adore him. And, well, listen to his albums. Or songs, because we're often not so much an album-listening bunch.

I am going off anecdote here, and we all know what that's worth, but it seems to me that it's often baby boomers I hear calling the Buckley version "the definitive" one. (There are of course exception to this.) I think Cohen was just too ironical and fucked up for my parent's generation, who seem as a group (again, there are exceptions) to tend to prefer music that is more sincere. Cohen is not sincere. Cohen is yanking your chain, and that's a trick more commonly employed by people my age. (And the musicians of our parents' generations (because our parents span two generations) we've held on to--David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop. I had a great discussion with some friends at the climbing gym a couple of weeks ago regarding what the cutoff line for really, really, really liking Bruce Springsteen was. Determination: it's somewhere between me and the 39-year-old, and he may in fact be the line.)

So I would gess that that is a contributing factor in why metric tons of musicians (and music fans) in Gen X and Gen Y are obsessed with "Hallelujah," while our older compatriots prefer "Suzanne." Which is a perfectly nice song, don't get me wrong, but by contrast, you should hear my twenty-something friends talk about "Famous Blue Raincoat" and how they are trying to write stories around it. (Also a heavily covered song, these days. It used to be "Bird on a Wire" that got all the love.)

I'm not going to make any case that bitter ironicism is somehow more genuine than sincerity (because actually, I suspect it's a generational defense mechanism and the opposite is true). But we like "Hallelujah" because it's layered in irony and self-contradition and comes at the same thing from twenty angles. (Also, as a generation, we love weird-ass covers. Love them. When I heard Patti Smith was doing a covers album, I danced in the streets.)

Interestingly, because I don't watch enough TV to stay at all hip to current pop cultural trends, the first time I heard a cover of "Hallelujah" used in a TV show was at the end of an S1 episode of Criminal Minds. Where it is used over a brutally ironic montage of man-on-the-street interviews responding to an officer-involved shooting. Which is a good (legal) shoot, but may or may not have been engineered by the shooter--with or without his partner's knowledge. Oh, and they never tell you, either. You're left to construct the narrative on your own.)

I told the truth.
I didn't come to fool you.

I'm going to be out for most of the day, so feel free to amuse yourself arguing or agreeing in the comment threads. ;-)


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Actually, as an "older compatriot", I prefer "Sisters of Mercy"...
An EXCELLENT choice!
I came at it the same way, but honestly, after you listen to the original a bunch Buckley's version goes from being "brilliant" in your head to being a little flat, emotionally. (First-person you.) Because even though his cover is good, it just... it only contains one angle, and the others are more prismatic.

--also 21
All the kiddie versions are too treacly for my liking. Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright are enough to make one's teeth rot.
The Rufus version hurts my heart. OMG.

I like the tricky guitar in the Buckly version, but it's emotionally flat.

k.d. lang and Regina Spektor do nice versions, however, though k.d.'s is also kind of muted. I wish she would get that gorgeous voice of hers up underneath and push.
I have only three versions (although the thought of an Imogen Heap version has sent me off to search for that too). I first heard the Jeff Buckley version when a friend of mine lent me the album Grace, and since then I picked up the Cohen and the Rufus Wainwright (which I also heard him sing live in concert and made me cry).

I don't actually think I prefer one version or another, to be honest. It really depends on the mood I'm trying to set.

Speaking of Leonard Cohen, I don't know if you've heard this, but the other song of his that grabbed me recently was 'A Thousand Kisses Deep' (which I heard on an episode of Veronica Mars, oddly enough). I handed it off to rosamund and she turned it into an absolutely devastating piece of writing.
That's an awesome song.

There's a Jann Arden cover of "If It Be Your Will" that makes my chest hurt, it's so good.
I have a thing for Jeff Buckley and adore "Grace" so I'm always going to be biased towards his version.

I've never been able to get along with Leonard Cohen. A friend gave me a Cohen CD for my 21st birthday and to this day, I am proud of how I hid my disappointment and thanked him effusively.

I didn't know there was an Imogen Heap version. *heads off to seek it out*
One of the weirdest--and coolest--versions is Bono's.

Which he does as a kind of fierce, aggressive rap chant. It's awesome and angry and oh so cool.
I love Immy's version. I heard it through ilike on facebook. Of course, I tend to like anything that she does and can't wait for her to come back on tour once she finishes her new album.
The Rufus Wainwright is the version I heard first; it's the one that sticks with me.
In my world, Leonard Cohen is bloody overplayed by all those hipsters and depressives who love his layered irony. I do believe that being forced to listen to his "Waltzing Matilda" would qualify for me personally as torture at this point. Maybe I prefer my irony a bit more cheerful, or maybe I've just been overexposed. Or maybe I'm better medicated, as almost all the Cohen fans I know seem to be either in the irony-hipster phase or not well-medicated for their depressive tendencies.

I'd choose Buckley because I like Buckley and because after three days straight of a roomie playing Cohen I never need to hear his voice again. But I was exposed at Noriega-like levels there, so I have reason. Had I been watching that Criminal Minds episode for some strange reason, I'd have rolled my eyes and groaned and talked over it and left the room in self-defense.

I often fall out of the generational trap, as despite being genX I have musical tastes that almost entirely stop by 1986 or so if not 1976, and was never much into pop radio except for a brief flirtation with New Wave. Most of my collection is those other great chain-yankers and their ilk, or punk, or Weird Eclectica. Ideally with awesome lyrics, as I've realized that's what makes something really stick for me; good *writing* will grab me long before great guitar. But I am really not a musician sort; I just like poetry and activism and tight pants and eyeliner, and music isn't how I express that.
I think Leonard Cohen is a shill for Prozac, really.
It's not a song I know much about, and I've probably only heard the Shrek version. Since it played tricks with every song I did recognise, I don't think I'd give that version much significance.

But I do think it matters that the lyric is being changed.


As a 49 year old, I love the Leonard Cohen and KD Lang versions. As a personal opinion, I feel the defiance and acceptance of life are both portrayed very well by these artists. I don't get that from the majority of other versions.


"All I ever learned from love / was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you."

Drop that line, and there's no damned song.
It would be interesting to know how many of us thirty-somethings found Leonard Cohen through the movie Pump up the Volume.
Ahem. ::raises hand:: I'm thirty four, and had a *wicked* crush on Christian Slater back in the day. Had the cassette version of the soundtrack until some *(&^&*( pinched it.

(To atone, is this the Lang you were looking for: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_NpxTWbovE )
You need not atone. I forgive you young people your incomprehensible attachment to Mr. Wainwright. (Get off my lawn!)

Re: KD: I know! I have seen it on youtube. I need to track down an audio version....
For me it's John Cale's version - he has a wonderful voice. There's a beautiful live version with a string quartet here.
I'm 28, and if I absolutely had to choose a favourite, it would be Jeff Buckley. I actually heard the song for the first time performed live by Rufus and Martha Wainwright; I thought it was beautiful, but as it was clearly a cover, I went away to investigate. Buckley conquered me after all.
I made a similar post a few days ago, and through a link posted in the comments, I discovered this gem. I now have 43 versions of Hallelujah on my computer.

(Oh, and I'm 21 and my favorite version is probably Rufus Wainwright followed by Imogen Heap.)

Edited at 2008-03-09 02:28 pm (UTC)
So, after listening to Leonard Cohen's versions this week, I'm convinced the right way to look at them is as two different songs. (Sort of like "Wondring Aloud" and "Wondring Again".) The first one is utterly brilliant, the second a clever response to the first. (I mean, the first line of the second is "Baby I've been here before." Yeah, he was.)

And then Cale comes along, combines the two in a way that doesn't make much sense and actually takes meaning away from them, leaves off the only verse that's in each -- the best verse, at that -- and everyone starts covering his version. Blah.
I should perhaps add that you introduced me to the song back in the mid-90s, and then it sat around in the back of my head until I saw Shrek and said holy crap, that's that cool song of Bear's! Of course, they left out the best verse there, and when I tried to track down the song, the version from the movie wasn't on the soundtrack album, and the Amazon.com sound sample of the Cohen version sounded awful to me, so I just added the Cale album to my Amazon.com wish list, where it still sits unfulfilled today -- and pretty unnecessary, since after this week I have three recordings of the song. Of which the original Cohen version is easily my favorite.
Just to possibly skew your results, my 42-year-old sister had a phase of love-love-LOVING Springsteen, but I think only stuff before Tunnel of Love.

On the other hand, I also love some wacky covers. One of my favourites is Red Hot + Blue, a collection of covers of Cole Porter songs. Yes. ^_^
I first heard it on the "Shrek" soundtrack, and, um, liked that version. :-) Seriously, though, even though I'm 51 (thus a "Baby Boomer"), I never liked Cohen's voice (nor Dylan's) -- I was in the other cohort, the Brit folkrock group (Steeleye, thy name is love).
*peeks around*
*makes sure has quick retreat*
*takes deep breath*
I heard a bunch of different versions of the song and went through them all to see if there were any I particularly liked and the only one I liked well enough to keep (and I liked that version a LOT) was the Rufus Wainwright version.
*runs away hastily*
I'll admit that I was another kid who heard it on Shrek and snagged the song. And I think Rufus Wainwright does the song justice. (The Cale lyrics still make sense to me.)

But I came across the original Cohen and Buckley's cover while searching for the lyrics, and I kept running into about six different iterations. At the time I chalked it up to people on lyrics boards mishearing words (which happens all the time) but now knowing better, I enjoy almost all the versions.

I just happen to enjoy the Wainwright one a little more--particularly since it came into my life at a time when the lyrics made sense for me personally.
I prefer the Cale, but enjoy the Cohen. (Never really sought out the Buckley.) I think I interpret the Cale very differently than Barthel does. He hears "utter despair"; I hear triumph (seriously!). It's a happiness that's neither perfect nor saccharine; a "broken" Hallelujah but it's still somebody standing up and singing "Praise the Lord!"

I've noticed an overall increase in both the quality and obtrusiveness of music in TV and movies lately (~5 years); it seems woven in more tightly. Instrumental isn't incidental music (BSG is very John Williams); often vocal pieces carry a substantial amount of action (e.g. the episode ending of several episodes of Lost).

Dear Not So Young People

A) Youse guys don't take enough acid to understand what Cohen meant to us old farts.

B) I'm pretty sure they don't make the good shit any more.

C) I'm real sure you don't need any, for any practical reason.(Yes there was one.)

D) Nobody mentioned the Jennifer Warnes version.

E) IF you could see the period out the windshield instead of in the rear view, you might see that Dylan was the role breaker, the rule breaker, the obvious alien. I mean the second Dylan, Mr. Tambourine Man.

All of a sudden, no rules. Poof. You didn't have to write love songs, or listen to love songs, ot think about your little deuce coupe. The songwriting universe exploded, and the lesson of Dylan's voice was ""You Could Do That Too."

Remember this is happening when the PP&M and the sugar-coated Beatles rules the airwaves.

Then there was this little Jew. This little subversive Jew of ambiguous but enthusiastic sexuality, somebody who had done it all, and chuckled at all of it.

Lots of people, women mostly, like Judy Collins tried to sweeten Cohen, but a line like Jesus was a sailor, when he walked upon the water," tended to stop you in your tracks.

Cohen's take on religion was very important too. This was after Vatican II, and the Catholic Church was in ferment, Liberation Theology and all.

So anyway, Cohen was knowing and subversive to a system that was based on subversion, even PP&M.

So i saw Cohen live, before i had heard more than one of his songs, maybe two. Here is this little, meek, understated guy with a fucking uncool gut string guitar, and no singing chops at all, playing in bright sunshine in a very competitive setting. Dylan and Donovan and Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs and all those kids out there, all twenty years old and ready to kick ass.

And Cohen muttered his words, and 30,000 people though "How did he know that? That is my darkest secret. If anybody knew that, i would be ashamed."
My first comment here and it's on music, not your writing :irony:

I came to this song first via k. d. lang's version, which was used at the end of the Numb3rs S3 episode "Provenance", which was about the Holocaust and a stolen Pissaro painting. I also like the version by Blake, on their recent debut album.

And ironically, there was a brief discussion of Leonard Cohen in a second season episode of Bones that I was watching yesterday...
Double irony: I just got through watching that episode on DVD (I'm mainlining Numb3rs right now) and frankly, k.d. lang's version is nice, but it wasn't very well used in the episode.

For one, the balance between the singer and the dialog in the scene wasn't well balanced from an editing standpoint, secondly, it didn't seem appropriate to the situation.

Three seasons in and Numb3rs still doesn't really know how to use music, but that's okay. Because it's got David Krumholtz and his geekish good looks working overtime for them.
On the topic of layering irony and sincerity: Are you a Dan Bern appreciator? "God Said No" is a song worth considering in this context, not to mention also being SF, rather...

I have never even heard of this wonderful thing.
I had a great discussion with some friends at the climbing gym a couple of weeks ago regarding what the cutoff line for really, really, really liking Bruce Springsteen was. Determination: it's somewhere between me and the 39-year-old, and he may in fact be the line.

I ADORE Bruce Springsteen.

... I think I just DQ'd from my generation. Oh, well.
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