Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Hallelujah - Jeff Buckley

Leonard Cohen penned this old chestnut back in the '80s, and indulged his nascent love for synthesizers while recording it. The results were moving but still jarring, particularly for people who had always known Cohen as a folkie, and this rendition sounds hopelessly dated now. But, y'know...if Dylan can go electric successfully, why can't Cohen? (Listen to I'm Your Man for what can happen when he gets synthesizers fully right.)

Since that time, gobs of singers have recognized what a stunning piece of work "Hallelujah" is, and have tried their hand at it. Rufus Wainwright and k.d. lang are among the fellow Canadians who have successfully turned it out. I actually heard a country singer attempt it yesterday on our office Muzak, with abysmal results. But honestly, no one - NO ONE - has even come close to Jeff Buckley's crystalline, heartbreaking rendition.

Buckley's voice is a nearly otherworldly instrument...some have even said that his voice sometimes does what no human voice should be able to do. He can sound angelic, soaring above the world like the most pristine of boy's choir voices, then scream like a banshee hellbent on destruction for what feels like minutes on end. Buckley is also not afraid to sound like an possessed fool in the service of a wild old blues song.

But he understands the quiet, serious reverence "Hallelujah" can take, and with spare spidery guitar behind him, he begins nearly in a whisper, commanding attention and wringing out every last bit of emotion from the song as beautifully as possible. The way he adds the slightest of melismas to the chorus is chill-inducing, and damns the likes of Christina Aguilera to musical hell. On the entrance to the bridge, he sings the last "hallelujah" as if he's pushing a paper boat with the slightest of nudges out onto a vast lake, with nothing but that solitary guitar and its sad but sure direction between vast spaces of silence.

And then that ending...oh, my God, that ending. Buckley intones the chorus over and over again, growing ever quieter all the time, drawing you in once again. Then suddenly HALLELUJAH...his voice unexpectedly pierces the cathedralesque quietude like a jagged dagger, and hearts are shattered, tears erupt by the riverful, and worlds fall into despair. But as if to heal the pain, he gently sings hallelujah two last times...once that seems to flow for eternity, offering ethereal balm for all the world's suffering, then again to affirm that perfect healing. And although tears may not dry up, and sadness may continue, the last hallelujah closes the song as completely and gracefully as a pastor closing a Bible.

As far as moving, heartwrenching music goes, Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" is right up there with Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings and Henryk Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. It's a perfect confluence of one of the century's most brilliant lyricists and songwriters, and a young man with a staggeringly talented voice. Take ten uninterrupted minutes out of your life and listen to it.

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