Jeff Buckley performs Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
I would like to share a new year's resolution with you.
Oh, it's not for me. Nobody cares about my new year's resolutions. My resolutions involve things like waiting until dinner to eat hummus, instead of indulging during lunch. See? I told you nobody cares.
No, the resolution I'm talking about is one I'd like to make on behalf of the entire music industry. Take heed, singers, musicians, American Idol, Glee, advertisers, filmmakers and soundtrack-compilers. This is something you need to hear, and it's long overdue:
Knock it off with "Hallelujah" already.
It has nothing to do with "Hallelujah" itself. Leonard Cohen's song is an exquisite composition, with some of pop music's most finely rendered lyrics. It is an astoundingly lovely, deeply soul-satisfying piece of sonic beauty. I mention this in order to stave off angry commenters convinced that I am an emotionless hack of a music critic who hates the song or, barring that, to shove this paragraph in their faces when they inevitably show up anyway.
Susan Boyle performs Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
Paramore performs Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
We call this one "One Tree Hill-elujah." Because that's the show where Kate Voegele performed it in character.
But as marvelous as the song is, I'm forced to admit that we've pretty much killed "Hallelujah" dead. Everybody had to play with it, and there's nothing more anyone can add to it by now; the only reason to cover it is to shout "Me, too!" to anybody listening. The end result is the pop-music equivalent of the Galapagos Islands: what was once a pristine enclave of almost preternatural gorgeousness has been ruined with extensive tourism by well-meaning admirers.
Poor Marissa Cooper of "The O.C." Hey, what song can we use for a fan-made montage about her death? Oh, I know. (This is the Imogen Heap version.)
Leonard Cohen performs Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
What brings this on is ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro's new Peace Love Ukulele, which came out yesterday. The album includes a new instrumental version of, you guessed it, "Hallelujah," which YouTube confirms that he's been playing live for years. Adorable, twee lead instrument notwithstanding, the cover is indistinguishable from actual Muzak; Shimabukuro simply plays the vocal melody over a saccharine easy-listening arrangement. There's none of the risk or curiosity that you might find in, say, jazz anywhere, just a damn plinking where the singing usually is.
Jake Shimabukuro performs Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
Even if Shimabukuro hit the nail on the head, though, even if he pulled out a moving rendition, the fact remains that we simply don't need any more "Hallelujah"s. We're good, thanks. Hey, look, I know that great songs invite covers. Singers want to wrap their mouths around the words and musicians want to feel the melodies course through their fingers.
Still, there's something ... I don't know, unseemly about what's happened to "Hallelujah." After its recorded debut on Cohen's 1985 album Various Positions, it lay quietly for a half decade or so, until John Cale turned out a simple version in 1991. It should be noted that that was for a Cohen tribute album and not, you know, just because.
John Cale performs Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
Since then, it's like everybody has been trying to make up for lost time. Jeff Buckley recorded the gold standard of covers for his 1994 album Grace, and after that, the deluge. Wikipedia alone lists at least 30 different versions, which is, in all likelihood, a mere fraction of what's out there. It's been used in Shrek AND Watchmen, for crying out loud. Il Divo did it in Spanish, for those who felt that its English-language lyric was too coarse and unromantic.
Il Divo performs Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
It's also become the go-to song for male American Idol contestants like Jason Castro and Lee DeWyze who want to show how very sensitive they are. The new season is set to start this month; I can flat-out guarantee that you will hear it performed at least once. A couple of weeks ago, I had dinner with some friends in a resort town in the off-season, and there was a woman with an acoustic guitar singing covers in the restaurant. As soon as I heard the words, “I've heard there was a secret chord...,” I almost banged my head against the table.