Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is one of the most-covered songs of all time. Very respectable artists and random teenagers on YouTube alike have their own versions. But in a very weird way, it's fallen into the same vein as the National Anthem, in that just about every cover is more about the artist than the song. Take, for example, this k.d. lang performance.
Lang is a wildly powerful singer, but it's like she'd come into the chorus sometimes acting vocally exhausted. When the lyrics say "every breath we drew was Hallelujah," that's not instructions telling you to push out the word "Hallelujah" as fast as you can with one breath. She's far from the only singer to do this, though hers seems like a deliberate choice.
There's also the subset of people who -- how to describe this? -- speak the song. Leonard Cohen, in his advanced age, gave the song more of a conversational quality, but Steven Page of the Barenaked Ladies covered it at a funeral like this.
That can be a valid artistic choice, but a bunch of young singers on YouTube, that don't have great vocal control, do this out of actual vocal exhaustion.
It really is a piece that requires a large degree of vocal strength to do properly. Singers will blow it by stretching out and bouncing the "oOoOoOo" or "aaaahaaahahhhhh" note in one of the earlier individual hallelujahs and won't have enough oomph left in the tank for the final hallelujah.
That's great when you want an applause break and earn a breath for yourself during "FREEEEE" in the National Anthem, but when you're in a waltz, you don't really get that break. And that's what I wanted to point out here today -- this song that practically every cover is warping like a "Dali in Photoshop" tutorial is a waltz tune that doesn't actually allow for that.
The original version is written in something called 12/8 time, and has since been reformatted for covers into 6/8 and 3/4 time, better known as "waltz time." This slowed-down song your mom wanted as a ringtone in 2008 is actually a hard-to-stop waltz. Here's a quick briefer on what 12/8 sounds like.
Note the "ONE-2-3 FOUR-5-6 SEV'N-8-9 TEN-lev'n-twelve" beat that's really coming through there. Get that rhythm going in your head, and now listen to Rufus Wainwright, because inexplicably, the Shrek movie landed arguably the two best versions ever recorded, using John Cale for the movie clip and Wainwright for the actual soundtrack.
It doesn't even require the piano backing, because an acoustic guitar can still provide that waltz beat. Wainwright doesn't waste notes and has a strong enough technique that allows him to take breaks where the song allows it instead of just going until he runs out of air. Now, watch an actual waltz to the song. Watch the feet go "ONE-2-3 FOUR-5-6" as they step to the music.
That video is actually a really good one because the cover they're using while sounding grainy to us coming over their speakers, has a bit on one verse where it dramatically slows down -- here's the cool part -- and the dancers change their pace to match it while maintaining the waltz.
"Hallelujah" is a beautiful song that allows for a fair amount of artistic and emotional expression. It'd just be nice to see it not get warped like a waterlogged deck by half the covers people do, and an easy way to do that would be if everyone remembered to count to 3, 6, or 12.Isaac is on Twitter and Instagram @NotFunnyIsaac, and can't dance to save his life.
Top Image: Rama/Wiki Commons