Jeff Buckley is one of those artists best known now for a song they didn’t write themselves. Like Kirstie MacColl’s ‘New England’ (Billy Bragg), Joan Jett and The Blackheart’s ‘I Love Rock And Roll’ (The Arrows), and, to some extent, The Verve’s ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ – which lifted its iconic string arrangments from Andrew Oldham’s ‘The Last Time’ – Jeff Buckley’s cover of ‘Hallelujah’ is so intertwined with the singer’s aura that people are often surprised to discover it’s not an original.
Among devoted Buckley fans, that delicate reworking of ‘Hallelujah’ is tantamount to genius – proof of the singer’s ability to take even the most under-appreciated work and make it a massive hit. But here’s the thing: Jeff Buckley’s arrangement of ‘Hallelujah’ isn’t Jeff Buckley’s at all – it’s John Cale’s. And I’m not talking minor similarities here; it’s exactly the same, right down to the vocal intonation. So why is it that we regard Buckley’s and not Cale’s cover as the definitive version of ‘Hallelujah’?
‘Hallelujah’ was first released in 1984 on Leonard Cohen’s Various Positions album. Next to more melodic tracks like ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’, it sounds undeniably morose, perhaps even nihilistic. It went unnoticed for many years, except for Bob Dylan, who covered the song live on numerous occasions. Alas, for the majority of listeners, Cohen’s efforts felt deliberately impenetrable. The lyrics themselves are vague enough to defy singular interpretation, evoking intimacy in both a religious and sexual sense. And yet, because Cohen refuses to lean into the melodies floating beneath his vocals, we are never quite allowed to feel the warmth of that divine touch.
The track lay dormant until 1990 when John Cale of The Velvet Underground heard Cohen perform ‘Hallelujah’ live in concert at New York City’s Beacon Theater. Cale walked away from that gig determined to reimagine the song, but only got the opportunity when Les Inrockuptibles magazine asked him to contribute to their Leonard Cohen tribute album, I’m Your Fan.
Cale stripped away Cohen’s murky analogue textures, leaving only its fundamental chord progression, which he decided to play on a standup piano. Playing a descending bassline with his left hand and arpeggios with his right, the poignancy of Cale’s piano arrangement is only heightened by his newly-melodic vocal line, which floats ever so slightly above the warm chords below, melding with the resonant sigh of his piano.
Buckley, being a fan both of Cohen and Cale would likely have heard this version of ‘Hallelujah’ when it was released on I’m Your Fan in 1991, at which time Buckley had just started performing as a solo act in cafes around Lower Manhattan. He decided to start playing Cale’s version during his sets, and it quickly became a fan favourite.
Funnily enough, Leonard Cohen knew Jeff’s estranged father, the cult folk singer Tim Buckley, who gained some notoriety in the ’60s and ’70s for singles like ‘Song To The Siren’. After adopting his father’s surname and establishing himself on the New York circuit, Buckley landed a record deal and started work on his debut album Grace in 1994. The simplicity of Cale’s 1990 piano version meant that Buckley could transpose the arrangement and play it on his Les Paul electric guitar, using the same precise finger-picking that his father was so renowned for.
The fact that Buckley’s version didn’t become well known until after the singer’s death in 1997 gives us a good indication of why it has eclipsed Cale’s 1990 version. Like Cale, Buckley decided to record the track solo, with only a single instrument at his disposal. In the moment of recording, Buckley was incredibly vulnerable, paper-thin almost.
The track is far more haunting than Cale’s because it was better in any way but because it reminds us that the man who is pouring his heart out for us, who has never known his father, and who has his entire life ahead of him, will be dead in three years.