Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is a timeless classic, his delivery is utterly perfect in every way and the task of covering it is one that many have attempted but only two have achieved true success. Jeff Buckley’s version is a masterclass in how to forge a unique rendition a beloved song and, instead of trying to mimic Cohen, he instead takes the great wordsmith’s lyrics and reimagines it into his own entity.
The heartbreakingly beautiful track was originally recorded by Leonard Cohen for his 1984 album Various Positions and would be one of the most unusual compositions that the Canadian would ever create. That is what made the original so great, it couldn’t be any more unique to Cohen and the thought of anybody else even attempting it would have been quite frankly bizarre. However, this would all change after The Velvet Underground’s John Cale arrangement of the song would take it to the next level. Soon enough, Cale’s song would be heard by Jeff Buckley who then took what the Welshman had done and ran with it to a new ethereal place.
‘Hallelujah’ is a definitive rarity for its ability to make people feel and truly emote in a way that other songs can’t. Buckley’s Gen-X crowds were often rowdy throughout his sets and he always used to make sure to leave this track until last. As soon as he sang the first note of ‘Hallelujah’, you could hear a pin drop as the audience was silenced by the emotion emitted from the stage. Cohen’s version has the ability to stop someone dead in their tracks and, although Buckley tackled the song from a different perspective, he manages to make listeners feel the very same raw emotions as the legendary Canadian does with his version.
Leonard Cohen later explained the meaning behind the song whilst leaving it open to interpretation in his trademark poetic fashion: “Hallelujah is a Hebrew word which means ‘Glory to the Lord,” he explained. “The song explains that many kinds of Hallelujahs do exist. I say: All the perfect and broken Hallelujahs have an equal value. It’s a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way but with enthusiasm, with emotion.”
Whereas Buckley interpreted the lyrics in his own way, the late singer referred to his voluptuous rendition of the track as being a homage to “the hallelujah of the orgasm.” He explained in a Dutch magazine OOR: “Whoever listens carefully to ‘Hallelujah’ will discover that it is a song about sex, about love, about life on earth.
“The hallelujah is not a homage to a worshipped person, idol or god, but the hallelujah of the orgasm. It’s an ode to life and love,” he added. Buckley also admitted to hoping that Cohen wouldn’t get to hear his version in case he was upset at his interpretation of the classic.
Buckley’s close friend Glen Hansard, who moved to New York with the singer, praised his friend’s effort to The Atlantic, stating: “He gave us the version we hoped Leonard would emote, and he wasn’t afraid to sing it with absolute reverence. Jeff sang it back to Leonard as a love song to what he achieved, and in doing so, Jeff made it his own.” It was this transition which saw Buckley’s version of the track be counted as a true masterpiece and, at the very least, on a level footing with the original, if not better.
It wasn’t until Buckley’s tragic passing in 1997 that the cover would escape the grasp of his loyal cult fanbase and garner mainstream attention. The posthumous success of ‘Hallelujah’ would inspire countless others to take on the track and try to channel what Buckley did with Cohen’s track but nobody quite nailed it like him. The contrast between the two deliveries is vast yet they still manage to convey the same emotion, maintaining an astonishing amount of candour, humanity and love throughout.