Performing Hallelujah is no simple task.
Anyone unlucky enough to witness semi-professional hyper ventilator and Simon Cowell’s latest soul destroying reality show winner, Alexandra Burke will know.
On my travels around the world I have heard many renditions of this classic and I am not convinced people hearing it for the first time are getting a fair impression.
Arguably one of the great achievements of 20th century music, it was the culmination of an extraordinary effort of artistic will by Leonard Cohen, who filled two whole notebooks with lyrics before settling on the final composition.
His version has since been usurped by a variety of either melodramatic or extraordinarily touching cover versions utilizing various used and unused lyrics, the most famous of which (before Miss Burke came along) is a 1994 version by Jeff Buckley.
His version became a kind of ‘I Know It’s Over’ for the post-grunge crowd, who had no way of knowing it was ripped almost wholesale from John Cale’s 1991 recording. Cale’s rendition is deemed definitive by those in the know, as almost every Hallelujah since shares his sense of world-weariness and delicacy. It’s Cale and Buckley who imbued the track with its pureness and simplicity, and it’s amazing they chose to cover the song in the first place because Cohen’s original arrangement is, frankly, a wee bit rubbish.
Still, his original is nowhere near the bottom of the pile. There lies Bob Dylan’s offensive live version and Bon Jovi’s criminal reading of the lyrics where he sounds like he’s trying to curl one out while he sings.
I’ve not heard the performances by Bono, Starsailor or Sheryl Crow, but then again I’ve not seen Gigli either, but I know what I’d think of that.
Alexandra Burke’s performance of the song is predictably bombastic and ideal for a Christmas where many will be tipping the sofa upside down for some extra coinage. In contrast, Imogen Heap’s approach is to completely strip the song of any kind of music at all and simply speak the words, which depending on your choice of home furnishings is either bloody brilliant or as dull as elevator music.
One contemporary interpretation of the song which deserves an honorable mention is that of super-camp opera lover Rufus Wainwright, whose performance owes a lot to Cale and Buckley while conveying its own peculiar melancholy. The only problem is it was included on the soundtrack of Shrek, a contextualisation equivalent to hearing your Nan shouting ‘shaboy!’ before capping the house pet.
So whose is the best? It turns out that while Hallelujah is an easy song to sing, it’s actually an incredibly difficult song to sing well, in the same way that you only appreciate Paul McCartney’s vocal performance on Yesterday when you hear someone make a right pig’s ear of covering it.
Cale’s and Buckley’s versions stand above the others, and your favorite will most likely depend on how old you are. Buckley’s voice is full of youthful anguish, Cale’s that of a seasoned, heartbroken man.
Whatever your favorite is, there can be only one Christmas Number One, and for the UK at least, it’s a foregone conclusion. I for one am glad I will not be hanging around to watch the results come in.
What do you think? What’s the best version? Any that we’ve missed out? OR do you actually not like the song?