Thursday, December 18, 2008

Oh, Hallelujah

There's a whole of talking going on about Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen's much covered song. Books Inq mentions Dorian Lynskey's article in the Guardian, online today, where a lot of different artist's versions are given the once over and yet, for me there is only one version: the master's voice. Even the Times has covered the phenonmenon in a leading article.

I caught five mins of the BBC's Breakfast show this morning (yes, I am having a strange day) where the topic of discussion was the 'battle' for a Christmas #1 between Jeff Buckley's stripped down guitar and vocals version and the X Factor winner Alexandra's power ballad version. The BBC website has also produced this, er, helpful guide to the lyrics: Smashed Hits by Alan Connor. You can even take a quiz to see how well you think you know the song.

I've often wondered about the power of Cohen's song to resonate so strongly. I think it's down to the fact that Cohen uses an ancient story to stand, perhaps as allegory (but so much more than that) for feelings that cannot be wholly expressed, or satisfactorily expressed by our modern lexicon of mythology as well as language. It reminds me of how well Michael Longley's poem Ceasefire worked too: taking the story of the retrieval of Hector's body, Priam's grief and the appeasement of Achilles, and telling the story in a new quiet way; but the modern context in which it is written (N. Ireland, 1998) gives it a whole new slant.

Longley spoke about how he snatched 'from the narrative flow [of Homeric Greek myth], moments of lyric intensity in which to echo my own concerns, both personal and political.' The particular moment in 'Ceasefire' worked because it spoke both to the moment, behind the moment and beyond the moment. And that's what I think happens with Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah,' and why it is that so many artists cover it. Dress it up, dress it down, take it all round town, the words and the music line are still the same: it's a spun thrill that speaks to the emotional moment that we all carry inside us - humanity and, dare I say it, love.


Rachel Fox said...

Yes please dare!

As for power ballads...I have friends who love them but I find them the strangest things. I always find much more power in a rendition that is not trying so very, very hard. Takes all sorts...

p.s. this is no slight on the X Factor lass. I don't watch it or listen to pop radio so I have yet to hear her voice.

Rob said...

I'm a huge Leonard Cohen fan. I have all his albums and love them. I'd also say that Jeff Buckley's 'Grace' is one of the best albums of the 20th century.

However, I don't really understand why people are so upset over Alexandra's version. She is a soul singer (they gave her far too many ballads on the X Factor) and, considering that, she sings Hallelujah pretty well. She does well to hold back from histrionics for the first two verses. I don't like the arrangement, and the big drumroll before the third verse really bugs me, but Alex sings it with conviction. It's better than many of the other covers.

I guess people are indignant simply because it's being sung by the X Factor winner. But it's brought the song to a whole new audience and may introduce the songs of Leonrad Cohen to a new generation. That's got to be good.

Rachel, you can hear Alexandra's version (the one she sang in the X Factor final) if you scroll a few posts down on my blog. I don't think any reasonable person could deny she has a fine voice - she was light years ahead of everyone else on the show.

Rob said...

Oh, and I forgot to say. All those people rushing to download Jeff B's version to combat the capitalist exploitation of The X Factor might consider that Jeff's music was released by Columbia Records - not exactly a minor independent!

Not that Columbia will have been encouraging 'the race for number one' of course...

Rachel Fox said...

OK - I went and looked/listened. She has got an impressive beast of a voice. Can't say I particularly liked the 'Hallelujah' version...I think I like that song acapella best...but I'd like to hear her sing something else (and most likely when she's escaped the Cowell hit processing machine).

Speaking of could've warned me that I would have to see the evil one on the clip as well. Now you've spoiled Xmas for everyone.

Rob said...

A Christmas present for Rachel

Group 8 said...

Alex has a good voice but... was bad enough when Shrek hijacked the song, now Simon Cowell Inc.
They obviously failed to find a new 'hit' for her to sing and so turned to a classic. I'm just worried that it will be played sooo, sooo much that we'll all be utterly sick of it by Xmas day.
I'm a Rufus fan, so I love his version.

Unknown said...

Oh boy, I turn my back to go make some strawberry jam and look what happens...?

I should point out, because I haven't that I don't 'hate' Alex's version: I just prefer Len's :)

And Rob, how could you..? ;) A link to that man... *shudders*

apprentice said...

I must admit to being a bit peeved, not because of the girl herself, but just that a wonderful song is being given the cheesy Christmas hit treatment that will have Simian Cowell laughing all the way to the bank - one can only hope he has his dosh in a certain hedge fund!

Hallelujah was sung at my friend's husband's memorial service. He was ages with Cohen and it was sung by a fantastic jazz singer along with Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind" so it is now special to me for reasons beyond my liking of Cohen and Buckley.

I don't like Leona Lewis' treatment of Run either, which was probably engineered in the same studio - though Snow Patrol are pleased with it, but then maybe that's the cha-ching factor too.

I think Beyonce is the only diva who carries off that big production stuff, but she has real soul.

Nor am I that sorry that old Leonard was taken to the cleaners, as he certainly didn't look after the women who helped him the early days - but then how can you get mad at a guy who writes this, from the album Dear Heather:

Because of a few songs
Wherein I spoke of
their mystery,
Women have been
Exceptionally kind
to my old age.
They make a secret place
In their busy lives
And they take me there.
They become naked
In their different ways
and they say,
"Look at me, Leonard
Look at me one last time."
Then they bend over the bed
And cover me up
Like a baby that is shivering.

Maybe it should be paired with Beyonce's If I Were A Boy

Rob said...

"it was bad enough when Shrek hijacked the song" (Woman Rule Writer)

That was John Cale's (formerly of the Velvet Underground) fabulous version! Although, for some reason, Rufus's version appeared on the album.

Rachel Fox said...

Is your boiling jam pot big enough to drown el Cowell, Barbara? It would be a fitting end...

Group 8 said...

Rob - my objection was the diluting of a good song by DreamWorks. You know, the sort of cheapening of it. I'm not saying it's a bad version (either of them!) but does it belong in a kiddies' animated film? Maybe I'm being too...po-faced, or something. Anyhoo, Happy Christmas and many Hallelujahs to y'all.

Babs - I'm on a cake-making binge at the mo, so I can relate. Happy cooking!

Rob said...

WRW, yes, I see what you mean. Shrek and Leonard Cohen songs seem to come from two different worlds.

Totalfeckineejit said...

I'm sorry but ye are all wrong.These are not the best.Hallelujah is a song that hurts it should cut like a knife,a scalpel is needed- not a sledgehammer, so sorry yer wan from Ex factory is out.Rufus does a fine job as does KD Lang ,Alison Crowe comes close but the best version ever was by me at my cousin James' wedding in Portumna.It's strange normally I can't sing a note but in the early hours after a wedding I turn into Caruso.Unfortunately there were no cameras there to record earth shattering rendition so here's a link to Alison Crowe-she's easier on the eye than meself anyway.

Unknown said...

Thank you TFE, that version will have to do standing in for your, I'm totally sure, fine rendition of the perennial classic.

Cowell in my jam - that might leave a sour note, Rachel ;)

Glad that WRW & Rob sorted out that one about Shrek, although I (playing Devil's advocate) believed that that inclusion in the film was a sop to the educated adults who might have been watching.

I hate to say it, but Shrek & Toy Story are two of my favourite children's films... just getting my coat now...

Rachel Fox said...

I love the Shreks and the Toy Storys too. No coat required. The Barbie stuff in TS2 is fabulous!

The music in the Shrek films is always an interesting mix and the grown-up viewers may not like all of it but at least someone's put some thought into it and it usually raises an adult smile. I liked 'Live and let die' in S3...what a song! They always use Eels too - brilliant.

I've never quite understood the Myers/Shrek accent thing though.

Colin Will said...

Maybe Myers, who is Canadian, encountered a scary Scottish relative? Somewhere I have his video of "So I married an axe murderer", where I think he first used the Scottish accent.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, I've seen that film. I think it was meant to be funny but I couldn't stand it. But then I don't like the whole Austin Powers thing either. Much rather watch Shrek or Toy Story or about a million other things.

Totalfeckineejit said...

Barbara,it is Hallelujah, but not this particular one. Yes,the world can spin again coz the results of the TFE cartoon caption contest have been announced - you won't believe it!

Kay Cooke said...

I must say Barbara, all commentys re song aside, this is a most beautifully written post!

K. said...

You all might enjoy these two blog entries about the connection between Leonard Cohen and Hank Williams. The point of departure is a verse from Cohen's "Tower of Song." The entries are here and here. They include incisive quotes from LC about Hank Williams.

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