Leonard Cohen vs. Jeff Buckley: Deciding Whose Version Of “Hallelujah” Was Better

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The music world has experienced a great number of losses so far in 2016. Unfortunately that trend continued on Monday when legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen passed away at the age of 82. Cohen enjoyed a long, storied career that spanned nearly forty years. While his contributions to music as we know it may not immediately be as apparent as David Bowie or Prince, Cohen’s passing is no doubt a great loss to the world of music.

Throughout his prolific career, Cohen released an impressive fourteen albums; most recently, You Want It Darker, which was released less than a month before his passing. Cohen is perhaps best known for his 1984 song, “Hallelujah.” A gospel tinged folk inspired song, “Hallelujah” is easily one of the most recognizable songs of the past thirty years.

The song, which was released on his 1984 album Various Positions, served as an inspiration to a number of musicians in the years that followed. Furthermore, the song has been covered by a number of artists from John Cale to Rufus Wainright to Bon Jovi. However, much like Cohen’s original version, these versions often find themselves in the shadows of Jeff Buckley’s rendition.

Buckley’s “Hallelujah” appeared as the sixth track on his only studio album, 1994’s Grace. It’s hard to describe Buckley’s voice in words and do it justice. Buckley had an innate ability to sound somber and hopeful within the same phrasing or lyrical passage. There is a longing in his voice. An innocence you almost immediately can relate to as a listener.

Near the song’s conclusion, as Buckley repeats Hallelujah , he sounds as if he is on the brink of crying. Yet as you listen, you realize that is what makes this rendition so beautiful. The song moves him. And it moves you. His passion almost engulfs you.  You cannot help but be taken aback by what you are experiencing. Few artists have that ability; Buckley was certainly one of them.

Cohen was a master craftsman when it came to song-writing. “Hallelujah” is his magnum opus. But it’s almost as if he wrote it for Jeff Buckley to perform. Buckley was able to take this masterpiece to a whole other level. So much so that in 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Buckley’s version number 259 in their “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

In the same way a playwright can write a character with a particular actor in mind to bring his work to life, thus is the relationship of Leonard Cohen to Jeff Buckley. Cohen is the architect of this powerhouse of a song, the genius behind the curtain, but it is Buckley’s powerhouse performance that will help this song to live on for years to come.

The combination of Cohen’s knack for interweaving poetry into his music and Buckley’s ability to completely make the song his own leave you with this timeless, beautiful piece of music. Cohen was preceded in death by Buckley, who died of an accidental drowning in 1997. You would be hard pressed to think of a better song to remember these two great artists by.