Friday, March 21, 2008

Hallelujah - American Idol does Leonard Cohen

Album Jacket for The Essential Leonard CohenLeonard Cohen is one of the great late 20th century pop songwriters, and was notable for how often he let his Jewish background overtly influence his songs. I've posted previously about how Cohen's "Who By Fire" was inspired by the Roshashana piyut Unetanah Tokef, and his performance of the (French) Nazi resistance song "The Partisan". My all time favorite Cohen song, though is Hallelujah. Some how, in a 3 minute pop song, Cohen manages to intertwine an image of King David with an image of a contemporary love affair, both echoing the erotic imagery of David's Psalms and using using the power (and desolation) of the human love for the divine to reinforce the failings of human love.

"David played a secret chord, he played it well and it pleased the Lord. But you never cared for music, did you..."

Hallelujah has been covered more times than I feel like counting. John Cale, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainright, and K.D. Lang both have prominent covers. Cale's appeared, years after it's recording, in the animated film Shrek, though Wainright's appeard on the soundtrack due to licensing issues. Personally, my favorite is Cale's. To my taste his rather stiff and mannered recording highlights the feeling of a "broken Hallelujah" more than Buckley's more popular but more romantic version.

There's been a resurgence of interest in Hallelujah ever since it's inclusion in Shrek. The resurgence surfaced in an unlikely place a few weeks ago. Jason Castro, one of the hopeful contestants on American Idol, sang a tender and vulnerable version to the delight of the audience and judges. I was pretty impressed with the song choice. American Idol is known more for tapping into banal and easily packaged pop than for presenting edgy or deep material. Castro's performance wasn't perfect (his vocals tanked in the last moments) but respectable and his shortened version avoided some of the more challenging lyrics. But it highlighted the power of the songs images to resonate with a new generation who never heard the original or most of the covers when they were originally released.

Here are videos of Castro's performance and a live recording of Cale's. Follow the links for video's of Cohen, Buckley, Lang, and Wainright.

Jason Castro -- Hallelujah - Top 8 Guys

John Cale - Hallelujah

You can pickup the original Cohen version on the Essential Leonard Cohen, which I highly recommend. Thanks to YouTube users casezille108 and thecatkeaton for posting the videos.


Anonymous said...

Very nice version by Jason Castro. Thank you. Went on to you tube and played a few of his clips from the show. I like his understated way of phrasing and singing. His sensitivity shone through. He certainly has star appeal, extremely good looking and very photogenic. I might be a fan of his.

Jack said...

I'm glad you liked it. My wife and I are rooting for him, too. I would love to hear what he could do with the full lyric.