Gayageum player Luna Lee has been on a bit of a viral video roll recently. First it was her cover of "Space Oddity" by David Bowie that earned her 110,000 plus views, and just two days ago we featured her covers of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall," "Great Gig in the Sky," and “Comfortably Numb.” Back in her archives from a year ago, we’ve also found the above video of her cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Although Lee’s rock covers add bass and drums to keep the energy up, this version just features three overdubbed gayageums and a very subtle synth string line, leaving the bittersweet melody to come to the fore. No pyrotechnics here.
The best known of Cohen’s songs and the most covered, thanks mostly to Jeff Buckley’s version, “Hallelujah” was not considered a classic originally. In this fine story of the song told by Malcolm Gladwell on his Revisionist History podcast (stream it below), it took 15 years for its genius to be unveiled, by which time it just seemed obvious, like we had known it all along.
Gladwell interviews Alan Light, who wrote an entire book on the evolution of the song, the composition of which “bedeviled” Cohen the most, resulting in 80 or so verses that Cohen wrote and rejected until he found the perfect combo. The song took years to complete. (This segment of the podcast starts at 18:54 in, but you should really listen to the whole thing as it also explores Cezanne's art and Elvis Costello’s writing methods.) The story also involves Bob Dylan, a failed original recording described as "turgid", and the endless tinkering in Cohen's live concerts. The twists and turns that follow are both coincidental and tragic, and we will let you discover all of them by listening to the podcast.
Alan Light also spoke to NPR about the song following Cohen’s death earlier this month.
“September 11 comes,” he says, “and Jeff Buckley's recording of "Hallelujah" really became sort of an anthem in the aftermath, emotional shorthand for melancholy and for sadness.”
Sounds like that time of darkness has come around again, and we still have “Hallelujah,” needed more than ever.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.