Hallelujah. Whose version is the definitive version? The synth-tinged, half-sung, funereal Leonard Cohen original that somewhat stoically started up Side B of 1984’s Various Positions? It’s an album that very nearly didn’t see the light of day. Sony/Columbia turned its nose up at the paucity of potential hits and refused to release it in the USA. “We know you’re great Leonard, we just don’t know if you’re any good”, bemoaned label execs.
Audiophile scene lifers might instead nominate Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” as being more definitive. They sure as hell spin it enough. Released ten years on from the original and initially appearing on the (posthumously revered) Grace, so ubiquitous is Buckley’s “Hallelujah” at audio meets that the casual observer might mistake it for being the original.
But is Buckley’s vocal take not overwrought and its emotive force not overcooked? His voice is strong but does his intonation not border on the histrionic? My preference is for a more understated approach where less nets more – a little like Cohen’s original.
For this audiophile putting music before optimal sound quality, John Cale’s stark, piano-driven interpretation of “Hallelujah” benefits greatly from a lifted pace and heavier hints of despair; it holds truer to the third verse’s “Love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” Cale’s baritone is cold and his piano playing a little broken – by his own admission, the man is no Übermensch.
Leonard Cohen reportedly wrote over eighty verses for “Hallelujah”. After seeing him perform it in concert in the mid-80s, Cale had Cohen fax him the lyrics and then picked his favourites – the “cheeky” ones – for his cover version. It’s Cale’s take that set the template for Cohen’s own subsequent live readings of the song as well serving as the inspiration for Jeff Buckley’s rendition.
Perhaps this writer’s enthusiasm for the John Cale version can be attributed to it being the first version I heard. Memory tells me that Cale took “Hallelujah” to the BBC’s Late Show shortly before a studio version appeared on I’m Your Fan – a compilation of Cohen covers by early 90s leftfield artists. Who could resist The House of Love doing a ghostly “Who By Fire”? The Pixies ripping Bossanova-like through “I Can’t Forget”? Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ demented “Tower of Song”? Not I.
Before it was a b-side to single Drive, I’m Your Fan is where we first witnessed R.E.M claim Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” as their own. Upon release, it was the only place where one could find John Cale’s solo piano version of “Hallelujah”.
The I’m Your Fan CD is now out of print. Only the 2014 vinyl re-issue saves the song (and the album) from sky-high Discogs pricing.
For digital fans, nailing the John Cale version of “Hallelujah” is trickier. Whilst it appeared in the Shrek movie, licensing issues and/or label politics saw a Rufus Wainwright version take its place on the companion soundtrack album.
A live take closed out John Cale’s 1992 live album Fragments For A Rainy Season – out of print for many years – but this week announced as due for deluxe reissue treatment come December 9th.
The forthcoming 2CD, 3LP and digital download/streaming versions restore the running order to that of the original Brussels concert and spill with a decent helping of previously unreleased material:
A Wedding Anniversary
Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
Child’s Christmas In Wales
Darling I Need You
Ship Of Fools
Leaving It Up To You
The Ballad Of Cable Hogue
Dying On The Vine
Fear (Is A Man’s Best Friend)
Style It Takes
(I Keep A) Close Watch
Fear (Previously Unreleased)
Amsterdam (Previously Unreleased)
Broken Hearts (Previously Unreleased)
Waiting For The Man (Previously Unreleased)
Heartbreak (Previously Unreleased)
Fear (Previously Unreleased)
Paris 1919 (Previously Unreleased)
Antarctica (Previously Unreleased)
Wanna see John Cale sport a haircut n’ suit best described as “Jacobian avant-garde”? Seek out a used copy of 2004’s Fragments For A Rainy Season DVD. That said, the DVD’s lacklustre filming somehow subtracts from Cale’s stark solo set – just him, an acoustic guitar and piano. The CD alone is plenty rewarding and has the aura of the previous year’s Songs For Drella, recorded with former Velvet Undergrounder Lou Reed.
Cale might agree. Teasing Fragments Of A Rainy Season‘s expanded reissue comes a reshot video to accompany the orginal audio of the album’s closing cut, “Hallelujah”. Odd to see Cale lip-syncing to a song he recorded live 25 years earlier.
Similalry, this live “Hallelujah” has since been returned to streaming services. Spotify here, Tidal here. Try spinning it over and over – as I have these past twenty four hours – and then try to proclaim either the Jeff Buckley version or Leonard Cohen original as superior. Go on, I dare ya.
Further information: Domino