An older generation may know Leonard Cohen’s haunting
“Hallelujah” from his album Various Positions in the 1980s or
from a dramatic episode of The West Wing, but a younger
generation connects the song with a big, green ogre and his
Rufus Wainwright performed the song on the soundtrack album,
and John Cale's version was used in the the Dreamworks cartoon
feature of Shrek.
Cale and Wainwright are among hundreds of vocal artists who
covered the song on film and TV soundtracks, televised talent
contests, albums and concerts, artists including Justin Timberlake,
Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Jason Castro, Alexandra Burke with
Elton John and an all-star Norwegian quartet. The website
leonardcohenfiles.com lists 2,040 covers of his various songs.
Cohen might have remained a cult figure were it not for such
versions, which thrust “Hallelujah” into everyone’s consciousness.
Still, my favorite version is Cohen's own. Despite the fact that his
voice is a little worse for wear, it gives the song the gravitas and
experience it deserves, with just a hint of sparkling humor.
My second favorite version is Jeff Buckley's. It's sweet and sad,
as befits an artist dying young.
And my third favorite is kd lang, the most dramatic and emotional
of all. What a tribute to a song that is becoming a classic, a
piece of our cultural heritage.
Cohen's reaction to covers is typically gracious: "Whenever I hear
anybody do one of my songs my critical judgments go into
immediate suspended animation. I'm just knocked out when
anybody does a cover of mine. . . . First of all, I am happy that
someone has heard the song and is moved to cover it. Second of
all, it gives me a completely fresh take on the song and I can then
enter it into my own judgmental process."