30 songs in (almost) 30 days: day 26
day 26 – a song that you can play on an instrument: Leonard Cohen: “Hallelujah”
Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is easily one of my favorite songs. I’ve tried to bring it up in several spots in this meme, but I suspected all along that it would end up here.
Although Cohen’s is probably among my least favorite versions of it. It’s not so much that I object to Cohen’s gravelly voice and talky delivery. I like that in some situations. But this song requires more delicacy, I think. The man is a poet, though. There’s no doubt in my mind about that.
Mostly when I listen to this song I listen to k.d. lang’s version.
Lang keeps it cool. She sounds like she’s paying attention to the words. This song is intimate and over-emotional performances kill it easily.
Jeff Buckley’s version is the most popular, I think, thanks in part to its usage on an episode of the West Wing back in the day.
I really like the guitar part here. It’s not easy to play, though. I’ve been working on it, but it’s not there yet. Kate Voegele, whose voice I can’t stand, has a simplified version of this part that I used as a starting point for coming up with something I could play while singing (I didn’t post her version here though). I like the quietness of Buckley’s delivery, but something about the voice bothers me. Something that sounds like ego.
I also like Rufus Wainwright’s plaintive vocal quality on this song.
I find the piano part distracting, though, and he walks that line of overwrought performance, especially toward the end.
Sheryl Crow, though doesn’t get the song at all. And she messes up the words. Too bad, because her voice is pretty.
John Cale (of Velvet Underground fame) has a nice version with a string arrangement. I like the way his voice has a sort of Cohen-esque quality, but with better pitch. But it falls a little flat – too square?
Over the Rhine has an interesting version, but not really what I want to hear when I want to hear Hallelujah:
Jon Bon Jovi? No. Just, no.
The fact of the matter is that no version of this song lives up the ideal in my head. I love this song. I mean, I really love this song. I named one of my more favorite posts after it. So it should come as no surprise that it was one of the first things I tried to play on the guitar.
It’s taken me a while to get the hang of it, and I still can’t make the guitar part sound pretty. It’s got one of those dreaded bar chords – F, the chord that does double duty supporting the lyrics “the fourth” and also “the major lift” in verse 1. Sometimes I land it, sometimes I don’t. It also doesn’t help that I’ve been playing several different versions (strummed chords, Jeff Buckley’s, Kate Voegele’s, and my own). I like Buckley and Voegele’s arpeggiated versions (picking out the notes of the chords instead of strumming them), but I find it hard to sing to, because I have to concentrate harder on what my still untrained fingers are doing.
But the guitar part isn’t the only thing that I find challenging. It’s a surprisingly difficult song to sing, not so much because of the notes, but because of the text. It’s very talky – maybe Cohen’s delivery has it right after all – yet its melody demands some lullaby-esque sweetness. I find that I have to think very much about singing the song to someone. It needs inflection. It needs to say something. Otherwise it just sounds repetitive. But it can’t veer into emotionally overwrought. It’s a song to be sung when you’ve gone through all those big feelings and come out spent on the other side. It’s saying something to someone who is very, very close to the singer, both metaphorically and physically. It is maybe the most intimate song I know. My voice feels naked when I sing it, even when I’m trying to hide behind my guitar.
I think the sense of nakedness is the same thing that makes me dissatisfied with all performances of this song. I remember one of my music composition teachers telling me that the best poems for lyrics are the ones that are full of holes. “Really good poems make shit songs,” he said. At the time I wasn’t sure I agreed with him, but I’ve come to think he was right. There’s no room for music when the poetry is perfect. And maybe really good songs make for shit singing. Maybe this song will never be right. Maybe the only perfect performance is the one in my head. But that doesn’t mean it’s not exhilarating trying. I hear the poetry differently when I sing than when I read or listen.
Here is my very, very imperfect performance of “Hallelujah.” You can find the bar chords by the way they stop the action. But I still love this song. And maybe someday I’ll learn to play the guitar.