43. Jeff Buckley - Hallelujah

There are two covers on my list that are artists doing songs that others recorded first.  As I was putting the list together, I thought that it wasn't fair to the original artists who wrote a song to put someone on my list who just did a cover version of it.  So I left the covers off of my list and kept ranking songs, trying to finalize things.  As I was listening to song after song, most of the covers that I was contemplating stayed off the list, but two kept popping their heads back into mine.  At first, I was dismissive, holding true to my notion that no cover deserved to be on this list, especially when I was eliminating every song Bob Dylan wrote and performed simply because I couldn't take his voice seriously as a vocalist.  My lines held all the covers at bay, but two finally made it through the front lines and deep into the enemy territory of my brain and I was hopeless to resist.  They made it through for two reasons.  First, when you think of that song, this is the version that is the definitive one.  Secondly, the artists that cover these two songs are prolific songwriters that could have other songs of theirs on this list if it weren't for these brilliant covers.

"Hallelujah," by Jeff Buckley is the first of the two.  The song was originally written and performed by legendary songwriter Leonard Cohen.  Leonard's voice is much more gravelly, a la Tom Waits, and it just doesn't fit the song as well.  And I'm just being nice.  Here's what the editors at Amazon.com had to say:  "If ever an artist deserved the tribute-album treatment, it's Leonard Cohen, an intermittently fascinating songwriter but perhaps the worst singer to ever release more than one major-label album. Cohen has never written a song which couldn't be improved by someone else singing it, and it's no coincidence that he's been the subject of three (ed. note:  now four) tribute albums."

On one of the tribute albums, Tower of Song, U2's Bono does his version of "Hallelujah," a funky spoken word version with a falsetto chorus.  Now there's no bigger U2 fan than me, but Jeff Buckley's voice fits the song "Hallelujah" much better.  His voice has that ethereal, angelic feel to it that suits the melody and especially the lyrics.  On top of that, he plays a great bluesy guitar that compliments his vocals.  For the entire song (almost seven minutes long), it's just Jeff and his guitar.  You almost feel like you've intruded on a personal moment, so moving is his rendition.

The lyrics are pure poetry, and that's appropriate since Leonard Cohen started out as a poet before moving on to songwriting.  The song is about disillusionment with God, all of mankind, and a combatant lover and the loss of passion.  So pretty much everybody and everything.  The first couple of verses deal with the story of King David composing a prayer of hallelujah to God that was pleasing to the Almighty (and the reason he had to come up with it in the first place) and the singer telling the story to his lover.

I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you

Well it goes like this the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah

The second verse describes the scene in the Old Testament's 2nd Samuel where King David sees Bathsheba bathing on the roof of another building.   of Goliath decides he must have her, ignoring the fact that she's married to one of his generals.  Not only goes he ignore her marital status, he goes on to send her husband into a battle where he knows he will be slaughtered.  Now that her husband was out of the way, David was free to add Bathsheba to his own stable of wives.  And in perhaps the greatest understatement of the Old Testament, "but the thing that David had done displeased the Lord."  Yeah, I would think so.

You can tell that the singer wants so desperately to believe in the power of hallelujahs, but the hypocrisy he sees in religion and relationships makes him doubt if they can be found.  Jeff sings it with a combination of reverence, hope and yet some serious heartbreak.  How a singer can encompass all those emotions in just a few vocal phrases just blows me away.  The way he delivers the line, "but you don't really care for music, do you?" with such tenderness and disappointment at the same time moves me.  " 'Hallelujah' can be joyous or bittersweet, depending on what part of it you use," Leonard Cohen's publisher once said, and it's true.  With Jeff's vocals echoing that sentiment, it can both be uplifting and depressing, depending on your mood at the time and what part of the song you pay specific attention to.

Jeff plays the guitar in a bluesy style that gives it an almost casual, lazy feel to it.  It's like he's just sitting there singing, and he's so disheartened about what he's singing about that he might just not be able to play the next few guitar notes.  It's like the pianist that plays Chopin's Prelude in E-Minor (op. 28 no. 4) with such soul that it almost makes you cry.  I envy Jeff's talent on the guitar and when you add his vocal talents on top of it, well that's what puts a song like this on a list like this.  It's a song that moves me every single time that I listen to it.

(Things That Annoy Me #4:  I was talking about how Jeff played his guitar in an almost casual, lazy manner.  In today's lexicon, people who want to sound smart will use the term laissez-faire when they're talking about someone's lackadaisical attitude to something, because laissez sounds like lazy.  The problem is that the term laissez-faire has nothing to do with laziness, but is a term in economics that describes a condition where industry is free from government intervention.  I know I'm the only one that cares, but man, that bugs me.)

(Fun Fact #127:  If you were listening to the song and was wondering to yourself where you'd heard it before, you're not crazy.  The song has been used prominently in nine network shows:  The West Wing, Crossing Jordan, Without a Trace, The O.C., House, Criminal Minds, ER, Third Watch and LAX.)

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