The Unlikely Evolution of “Hallelujah”

In starting a blog column focused on cover songs, I would be remiss to not begin with perhaps the most famously covered song of all time: “Hallelujah”. Originally recorded by Leonard Cohen and released on his album Various Positions in 1984, “Hallelujah” was not the immediate hit it would later prove to be. In fact, the arrangement of the song we hear most often today is not even the version Cohen originally released.

John Cale, (known for his solo work, as well as for cofounding The Velvet Underground) had heard Cohen perform the song live using different verses than were sung on the recorded track. Cale asked Cohen to send over the alternate verses he had—upwards of eighty—and with that, Cale pieced together the version we hear at every coffee shop around the world. For comparison:

Original studio version:

John Cale’s version, performed by Cohen:

Despite the song’s metamorphosis which took place between Cohen and Cale, most people associate “Hallelujah” with Jeff Buckley who recorded a cover of the song for his first and only album entitled Grace, which was released three years prior to his untimely death in 1997. However, the song really hit mass-market appeal when John Cale’s version was used in the blockbuster movie Shrek in 2001. Oddly, this still wasn’t the version that charted. The soundtrack to Shrek (which sold two million copies) used Rufus Wainwright’s version of “Hallelujah” instead of Cale’s, despite featuring the latter version prominently in the film. This was the catalyst that launched “Hallelujah” into a level of popularity it had not yet managed to achieve since its release almost two decades before.

This, of course, was just the start of things. With hundreds of covers recorded and performed live by artists spanning almost every genre out there, it’s hard to choose the best renditions, or even personal favorites. The versions I’ve come to know best are the two mentioned above: Wainwright’s and Buckley’s. However, the song continues to reach new ears through each artist who performs it.

Imogen Heap’s haunting a capella version scored a main character’s death in the popular teen drama The O.C. in 2006. Two years later, Kate Voegele performed the song on One Tree Hill—a teen soap known for launching the music careers of artists such as Wakey!Wakey! and Gavin DeGraw. The use of the song in shows whose audiences are predominately teens and twenty-somethings undoubtedly brought, and continues to bring “Hallelujah” to an entirely new group of listeners.

For fans of country, Willie Nelson’s take on the song seamlessly adds steel guitar; his voice quaking on the refrains. He’s also one of the few artists to use Cohen’s original lyrics in his cover. Other notable versions include Beirut’s ukulele cover, in which he uses a playing card to strum. Brandi Carlile’s addition of strings (courtesy of the Seattle Symphony) underlines her loaded and lovely voice, while Bono’s version is at its best when it is ignored entirely. These artists and many more—ranging from Bob Dylan to Paramore to Renée Fleming—have done covers of the song. So what it is about this particular tune that resonates with so many different artists?

I’m inclined to believe it’s the mystery of the lyrics that draws so many people to it. Is the song about religion, sex, lost love, abuse? Cohen won’t be the one to tell you, offering little explanation of the song throughout his years of performing. Perhaps it means something different to each artist who covers it, infusing his or her own experiences into the performance and creating an entirely different song each time it’s sung. Although, it’s possible I’m just overthinking it—something Cohen certainly doesn’t do anymore. When asked what his opinion of the song is nowadays, Cohen offered, “I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it”.

Point taken, Mr. Cohen. Point taken.

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