There are numerous versions of Leonard Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah” out there – in fact, it looks like every artist with a half-decent (not necessarily, of course) voice simply had to record it at some point. Which is: unfair to Cohen, unfair to the song, unfair to us listeners. Out of a hundred or so versions I’ve heard so far, only five or six are worthy of the gorgeous, anguished brilliance of “Hallelujah”. And one of those happens to be Nick Cave’s track off No More Shall We Part – doesn’t count, obviously.
What is it that makes the song so special (besides the fact that it’s a good showcase for one’s vocal abilities)? Apparently it’s the song’s lyrics. The gloriously haunting melody is magnificent, no doubt, but it’s the decidedly non-trite lyrics that make it miles ahead of other love ballads. The lyrics of “Hallelujah” are totally devoid of clichés – it’s a true work of a true poet (Cohen) who knows his way around substance, edge, and imagery. The imagery is affecting, engrossing, with the ‘cut your hair’ line being particularly priceless. It's delicate, it's highly artistic - and yet it has that amazing power to gnaw its way through any heart.
And here it is, my top 5 of the world’s greatest “Hallelujah”s:
The band that is known for its hipster take on Balkan folk music recorded a thoroughly original version of the song several years ago. What is interesting – it’s good. Interesting, because in my experience with “Hallelujah”: the more you deviate, the worse it sounds. But they succeed, against all odds.
4. RUFUS WAINWRIGHT
A very well known version, of course, not least because of Shrek. It’s a terrific version – very lush and, as it often goes with Rufus, very rich-sounding.
3. LEONARD COHEN
Now definitely the great man himself doesn’t possess the greatest of voices – after all, Cohen is primarily a poet. And there are many versions where he completely butchers what might well be his greatest musical creation. But this live rendition bursts with the feeling, intimacy and understanding only he could provide.
2. JEFF BUCKLEY
Yeah, not number one – even if Buckley’s tortured, sweeping “Hallelujah” might well be the world's most well-known and beloved. But I love it as much as anyone, and the sheer heartbroken grandeur of his vocals never fails to nail me to my chair and make my heart beat a great deal faster than it should.
1. JOHN CALE
My personal favourite version, this ends Cale’s beautiful live album Fragments Of A Rainy Season (1992). This "Hallelujah" is certainly more understated than Buckley’s, and it just happens to hit me hardest. It's simple, elegant, perfect.