It was no surprise when Alexandra Burke, winner of this year’s X Factor, got to Number One in the Singles Chart. The inevitability of the X Factor winner getting the coveted Christmas Number One, as they have done for almost half a decade now, seemed so clear that most bookkeepers had stopped taking bets by early December. However what was genuinely surprising was the choice of song; instead of the usual insipid Mariah Carey cover came the rather strange decision to go with the cult Leonard Cohen classic ‘Hallelujah’. Although this was a typically shrewd move by Simon Cowell, the real story behind the amazing success of Alexandra Burke’s rendition is how an obscure folk song that is a heady cocktail of biblical references, sex and Hebrew numerology became the biggest selling single of 2008.
The song began life in the early 1980s when an extremely frustrated Leonard Cohen spent an entire two years trying to write it. Later Cohen was to tell various journalists about the song’s tortured conception, he told one interviewer that all he remembered about writing it was “being in the Royalton Hotel, on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, ‘I can’t finish this song’”. During these two years he claims to have filled two notebooks with around eighty verses for the song. Even after whittling these down Cohen was still left with fifteen. Not knowing what to do with them he ended up releasing two radically different versions of the song within four years of each other. The original studio version from 1984 is the hardest to understand; it is heavily religious in tone, making many references to Old Testament figures such as David and Samson combined with various nods to Hebrew numerology (the secret chord and “the name”). The second version from 1984 is markedly more secular, expanding the original undertones of a failed love affair and playing down the dense biblical references of the original.
However, it wasn’t until a third revision by John Cale in 1991 that the version of ‘Hallelujah’ we are most familiar with emerged. After seeing the song performed live, Cale, an architect of punk with both the Velvet Underground and his production of albums by the likes of Patti Smith and The Stooges, asked Cohen whether he could have the lyrics to the song. Cale got home to find that Cohen had faxed him all 15 verses, his response was to pick and choose verses settling on the ones that in his own words “sounded a bit cheeky”. His arrangement, captured on the Leonard Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan, is the one most people are familiar with and that most people choose to cover. Famously, Jeff Buckley had never heard the Leonard Cohen original when he started covering the song, basing his performance entirely upon the John Cale version. Lyrically speaking, Cale’s version does a good job of capturing both the secular and religious imagery of Cohen’s originals which lends it a wider scope than his own admission of it simply being the “cheeky” bits.
Perhaps more influential though is the way in which Cale transformed the musical arrangement of the song. Where Cohen’s original suffers from very poor 80s production and an extremely cluttered arrangement, Cale stripped the song back to its bare elements, his arrangement was based around just vocals and the piano. It is in this minimalist vein that most subsequent covers of the song have been performed. This is one of the key secrets as to why the song has become so successful, it is tailor made for solo performances. The most famous and best covers by the likes of Jeff Buckley, Damian Rice, Rufus Wainwright, K.D. Lang et al have focused upon the simplicity of one voice and one instrument, whether it be piano or guitar.
The other reason behind the creeping success of ‘Hallelujah’ is that in Cale’s pared down arrangement the lyrics are allowed to shine through. The juxtaposition of religious and secular imagery provides the song with a wide range of interpretations. Like all great songs, ‘Hallelujah’ has gained an infinite plasticity that allows it to not only be interpreted differently by artists performing it, but also allows each listener to draw their own interpretations. During the last 10 years the song has found itself used in the soundtracks of a wide range of films and TV shows. For years friends of mine referred to it as “that song from Shrek”, whilst others knew it from its use on shows such as The O.C., The West Wing and Scrubs. This steady growth of the song’s prestige via its use in soundtracks transformed it from a cult hit to a modern standard.
With the choice of ‘Hallelujah’ as the X Factor single, the song has come full circle from the obscure to the bona fide hit record. Alexandra Burke’s cover may seem surprising, but in reality there are an ever growing number of covers by artists as diverse as Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan (one of the few who covers Cohen rather than Cale) and Bon Jovi, who turn in a characteristically awful performance. Worst of all though is a pompous spoken word version by Bono which, with its comic electronic, is a solid contender for the title of worst recording of all time. In light of this, Alexandra’s version, with its overwrought bluster and synthetic production, is not the worst, but is rather some where in the middle. Inevitably though, as with any cover, the majority of the discussion will centre around which is the best version. As unoriginal a choice as it is, I find myself continually returning to Jeff Buckley. With its angelic, chiming guitars and floating vocals it effortlessly evokes the myriad of emotions contained within the lyrics, the sadness, the loss and the passion of love. It feels both monolithic and understated, for a singer with such a huge vocal range Buckley chooses to restrain himself, squeezing every drop of feeling from the song’s simple melody. Where Alexandra overpowers the song with her over the top vocal wailing, Buckley never once distracts the listener by engaging in the vocal acrobatics he was clearly capable of.
Ultimately though, it does not matter what your favourite version of the song is. It is a truly great song, which throughout its lifetime and various different incarnations has touched and deeply affected many. Whilst some may argue that the inclusion of ‘Hallelujah’ in a TV talent show adept at churning out personality-less drones decreases its value, the truth is that a great song will always be more subversive than any media marketing campaign.