It’s safe to say that there would have been a few million less “Hallelujah” choruses if not for Jeff Buckley, one of rock’s greatest all-time vocalists, who died 20 years ago today in a freak drowning accident at age 30. Leonard Cohen, who died last November, might also be millions of dollars poorer, since it was the Buckley’s transcendent cover of Cohen’s previously obscure “Hallelujah” that ultimately led to the song being a staple of everything from American Idol showcases to in-memoriam montages.
Buckley’s album Grace, on which his cover of “Hallelujah” appears, got off to a modest start, commercially and even critically, when it was released on Aug. 23, 1994. Rolling Stone gave the album just a three-star review, and among the mixed sentiments, critic Stephanie Zacharek was down on the song for which Grace would become best known. “The young Buckley’s vocals don’t always stand up: He doesn’t sound battered or desperate enough to carry off Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’”
Rolling Stone referred to him as “the young Buckley” in that put-down sentence not because he was 27 at the time but to distinguish him from his famous dad, ’60s folk icon Tim Buckley. It didn’t look like there was much danger of Jeff eclipsing his father — not in that moment, anyway. The album peaked at a paltry No. 149 on the sales chart, and tentative plans to release “Hallelujah” as a single were abandoned. After he tragically drowned three years later at age 30, before ever completing a sophomore effort, Buckley’s legend grew, but it was original songs like “Last Goodbye” that cultists latched on to, not his Cohen cover.
Then it was the 2001 animated film Shrek that really brought a new wave of popularity to “Hallelujah,” with two different recordings. Neither of them was Buckley’s, although it was his that music fans ultimately gravitated back to. The movie included a version of the song by ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale that had first appeared on a Cohen tribute album in 1991. And it’s generally understood that Buckley was covering Cale’s version of the song, which edited together lyrics from different stanzas that Cohen had sung at different times.
Then, when the Shrek soundtrack album came out, instead of the Cale recording heard in the movie, it substituted a fresh version by Rufus Wainwright. Anyone following the song’s history and lineage couldn’t help but be struck: Wainwright seemed to be covering Buckley’s cover of Cale’s cover of the Cohen classic.
When the tragedies of 9/11 occurred months after Shrek came out, the song was fresh enough in folks’ minds that it began to get picked up and resung, presumably because of its surface spirituality, or at least its solemnity, regardless of how well its lyrics really suited the occasion. That set off a debate that continues to this day about what Cohen’s sometimes cryptic lyrics are actually about and whether the song is truly fit for any occasion.
What almost everyone agrees on — besides Rolling Stone circa 1994, anyway — is that Buckley’s version is the gold standard of “Hallelujah’s” and the most praiseworthy of praise-the-Lords.
Rock writer Alan Light said as much in his 2013 book about the song, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlike Ascent of “Hallelujah”: “If Leonard Cohen was the author of ‘Hallelujah’ and John Cale was its editor, Jeff Buckley was the song’s ultimate performer,” Light wrote. He acknowledged that, in Buckley’s version, “the dry humor of Cohen’s original was gone; there was no room for this sardonic maturity in such an earnest performance.” But “even if Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’ didn’t deliver all of the layers that Cohen’s words contained … the passion and power of his performance are undeniable, irresistible. He polished the song to a perfect shape, in a way that allowed it to connect with a much different kind of listener than the cult of sophisticates who were devoted to Cohen’s less inviting sound.”
The list of “Hallelujah” covers is quite a monumental tower of song — to allude to another song title of the writer’s. Among the other artists who’ve taken a crack at it: k.d. lang (a favorite of Cohen’s), Bon Jovi (probably not such a favorite of Cohen’s), Bob Dylan (in concert in the late 1980s), U2’s Bono (on a 1995 tribute album), Justin Timberlake, Susan Boyle, Neil Diamond, Willie Nelson, Il Divo, Tangerine Dream, American Idol contestant Jason Castro, and British X Factor winner Alexandra Burke.
But in 2008, when Castro covered “Hallelujah” on Idol, Simon Cowell specifically noted that the Jeff Buckley version was one of his favorite recordings of all time. This resulted in a huge sales spike for Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” propelling it to the top spot on the iTunes singles chart; the single was later certified platinum, 14 years after its original release and 11 years after Buckley’s death. It was the first time Jeff Buckley had gone to No. 1 on any chart, ever.
There’s often some confusion over the song’s lyrics. When Cohen first recorded it for 1984’s Various Positions, it was marked by hope and even real religiosity as well as humor. The Cale/Buckley version borrows from different drafts of the tune. To some, it’s about depression and despair; to others, about sex and romantic abandonment; to still others, the spiritual overtones are real and far from completely ironic. The best answer is: all of the above.
Buckley initially seemed to favor the sexual interpretation, but he ultimately went deeper than that. “It’s a hymn to being alive,” the late singer once told Interview magazine. “It’s a hymn to love lost. To love. Even the pain of existence, which ties you to being human, should receive an amen — or a hallelujah.”
Says author Sylvie Simmons in her acclaimed 2012 Leonard Cohen biography, I’m Your Man: “I’ve upset a few Leonard Cohen fans by saying that I prefer [Jeff Buckley’s] version to the original. Buckley understood the strength of the melody. He sang it like he was in a cathedral.”
Indeed, it was Buckley’s version, not Cohen’s or anyone else’s, that was played at Fenway Park during a 2013 tribute honoring the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings before the Red Sox played their first home game following that tragedy.
Of course, the success of “Hallelujah” is arguably not Cohen’s anymore, now that the song belongs to the masses, or the Lord of Songs, or maybe just its purest, most tragic interpreter after all.