Saturday, March 19, 2016

Cover Versus Original - Hallelujah

The purpose of this new column is to compare a cover song to the original and see how each rates. Of course, all of this is based on my opinion, but you are more than welcome to be part of the discussion in the comments. Just know that I reserve the right to delete nasty comments. If you can be nice, then we can talk.

This week, we compare John Cale's version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" to Cohen's original. This one gets a little complicated, so stay with me as I explain what is going on. Leonard Cohen wrote and released this classic tune (a song I could listen to over and over again) in 1984 on his gospel album oddly titled Various Positions. When Cohen released it, the song did not do very well. It was a minor hit, and was not something that was requested often at his concerts.

Then in 2001, John Cale was asked to interpret Cohen's "Hallelujah" for the soundtrack to the movie Shrek, and the song took off. After Cale's interpretation of the song came the famed cover by Jeff Buckley that seems to get all of the press. I like Buckley's version and understand its popularity, but I have always found Cale's version to be the best of the bunch.

With a great song, the vocals and the music come together to create something wonderful. When Cohen was writing this song, he reportedly wrote 80 verses that he pared down to just a handful. Several singers vowed to record the whole song, but nothing ever materialized. I mean, who is going to want to listen to a song that has 80 verses? Even "Stairway to Heaven" manages to limit itself to six verses and a couple of lively parts at the end.

Let's start by listening to Cohen's original recording:

For me, it is apparent that Cohen cannot sing his own song. If it weren't for the chorus behind him, this song would not even be worth listening to for one verse. The music for this original is grating and does not help to project the soft and almost ethereal intent of the song. Cohen's vocals sound unsure, and do not help to elevate the song in any way. 

Now let's listen to Cale's version:

Cale's vocals are confident and have great dynamics to them. He emphasizes the energy of the song when he needs to, and then he lets the song carry itself when it feels right. His choice of instrumentation seems suspect at first, but it turns out to be the perfect choice. A lone piano and John Cale projected more emotion and sincerity than Leonard Cohen did with a choir and an entire orchestra. This is the song that catapulted this song into the public eye and gave it the proper identity.

To be honest, almost all of the dozens of covers for this song are better than the original. But this John Cale version is so sincere and honest (and perfectly done) that it stands as the best version to me. When the original cannot match up to the cover, then you have a performance that is truly something special.

Verdict: Cover (by a long shot)

George N Root III is a musician and general lover of music. Follow him on Twitter @georgenroot3 or contact him at