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On March 4, American Idol finalist Jason Castro pulled back his dreadlocks and sang a surprisingly not-terrible version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" to a captivated audience of roughly 20 million American consumers. By the end of the week, Jeff Buckley's version of "Hallelujah" had skyrocketed to No. 1 on iTunes; by March 22, the song hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Digital Songs chart; and by April 22, Buckley's "Hallelujah" went gold.
Considering that the song was written in the early '80s and recorded by Buckley in 1994, it's an interesting phenomenon, to say the least. By all accounts we should be sick to death of this song and its myriad renditions by now—it's been featured in practically every notable sad movie and television scene of the last decade (Shrek, The West Wing, Scrubs, and The OC, to name a few), peaking with the recent performance on American Idol. But try as pop culture might to bastardize this once-unknown gem, "Hallelujah" perseveres.
In the same month that Castro wooed soccer moms everywhere with his sugary pop-soul rendition of "Hallelujah," a local band called Romantica made their way down to Austin, Texas, to woo industry types with their blend of Irish-tinged alt-country. I was fortunate enough to see Romantica play twice that week, and at both shows the band broke out a song I had never heard them play before: their very own version of Cohen's "Hallelujah."
At first I chuckled. I mean, really? Do we need another cover of this song? But then something unexpected happened: As they kicked into the first chorus and lead singer Ben Kyle's voice strained against the melody, I was transfixed. Unlike most modern coverers of "Hallelujah," Romantica took charge of the song and set it to their own rollicking country beat. Rather than relying on a slow tempo and elongated vocal line, Kyle chose to keep a quick tempo (which is closer to Cohen's original version) and instead use his voice to project the feelings of love, loss, hope, and sheer agony that lie within the song. His voice, normally silky smooth even in the high register, crackles and breaks every time he sings "Hallelujah," as if the weight of the word is more than one young Irish singer can bear.
I've seen Romantica cover "Hallelujah" five times since then, and every time it sends a chill up my spine and gets me misty-eyed. Hearing them play the song feels special, because there's always a possibility that they might never play it again; in fact, until I recently found a YouTube video of Romantica's "Hallelujah" as recorded at the Molotov Lounge in Austin, their live show was the only place to hear the cover. And still, the video is a grainy facsimile of the transcendent way the song is performed live.
In a 1988 interview in the magazine Poetry Commotion, Cohen is quoted as saying, "I remember writing this song 'Hallelujah'; I filled two notebooks with the song, and I remember being on the floor of the Royalton Hotel, on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, 'I can't finish this song.' After I wrote the one version, I wrote another lyric which I'm doing now." Live takes of "Hallelujah" from over the years have Cohen constantly altering the mood and lyrics from show to show, as if he could never settle on a final, definitive version.
The two best-known covers of the song were recorded by John Cale and Buckley, both in the early '90s. But despite having recorded his "Hallelujah" cover for the Leonard Cohen tribute album I'm Your Fan in 1991 and playing it live hundreds of times since, Cale says he still isn't certain of the actual lyrics. In 2001, Cale told The Observer: "After I saw [Cohen] perform at the Beacon I asked if I could have the lyrics to 'Hallelujah.' When I got home one night there were fax paper rolls everywhere because Leonard had insisted on supplying all 15 verses."
The beauty of the song is that it was never really finished; Cohen wrote and rewrote the lyrics, changed the pacing, toyed with the arrangement. In a way, it's a song that's meant to continue evolving as it passes from hand to hand. Both Cale and Buckley transformed the song to great effect, with Cale setting it to a slow, church-like piano part and Buckley getting even slower and accompanying himself with a lone, eerie electric guitar. The drawback of most subsequent covers is that many musicians regard Buckley's recorded take on "Hallelujah" as quintessential, and have chosen to mimic rather than interpret his version of the song. The combination of the slow tempo and sad lyrics make for an extremely challenging cover, especially when performed by a singer lacking a voice as ethereal and emotive as Buckley's.
Which is the beauty of Romantica's take: They give the song enough breathing room to adapt to its surroundings. After one of Kyle's shows recently, I asked him why he chose to cover the much-loved song. He shrugged. "I've just been feeling that song lately," he said.
Speaking on behalf of 20 million iSingle-hungry Americans, we've been feeling it, too.