Malcolm Gladwell on Why Genius Takes Time: A Look at the Making of Elvis Costello’s “Deportee” & Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

costello cohen

In every musi­cian’s discog­ra­phy, one album has to rank at the bot­tom. In the case of the pro­lif­ic and respect­ed singer-song­writer Elvis Costel­lo, fans and crit­ics alike tend to sin­gle out 1984’s Good­bye Cru­el World, which even Costel­lo him­self once described as “our worst album.” But with an artist like him doing the cre­at­ing, even the duds hold a cer­tain inter­est, or have a val­ue at their core that emerges in unex­pect­ed ways. “Among the most dis­cor­dant songs on the album was the for­get­table ‘The Depor­tees Club.’ But then, years lat­er, Costel­lo went back and re-record­ed it as ‘Depor­tee,’ and today it stands as one of his most sub­lime achieve­ments.”

That comes from “Hal­lelu­ah,” a recent episode of Revi­sion­ist His­to­ry, the new pod­cast from Mal­colm Glad­well that we first fea­tured back in June. Here, per­haps the best-known curi­ous jour­nal­is­tic mind of our time asks where genius comes from. Or, less abstract­ly, he asks about “the role that time and iter­a­tion play in the pro­duc­tion of genius, and how some of the most mem­o­rable works of art had mod­est and undis­tin­guished births.” His oth­er exam­ple from the realm of music gives the episode its title. It first appeared, in the same year as did Costel­lo’s “The Depor­tees Club,” on Leonard Cohen’s Var­i­ous Posi­tions, not mak­ing much of an impact until a cov­er by John Cale, and then more so one by Jeff Buck­ley, made it the “Hal­lelu­jah” we know today.

“That’s awful,” moans Glad­well, cut­ting off a clip of Costel­lo’s orig­i­nal “The Depor­tees Club” — this from a self-described Elvis Costel­lo super­fan, who in 1984 bought Good­bye Cru­el World the week it came out, just like he bought every oth­er Elvis Costel­lo album the week it came out. He regard­ed it as unlis­ten­able then and still regards it as unlis­ten­able today, apply­ing that adjec­tive at least twice in this pod­cast alone. He goes eas­i­er on Cohen’s orig­i­nal “Hal­lelu­jah,” pok­ing fun at its dirge-like seri­ous­ness. Then, being Mal­colm Glad­well, he goes on to frame the sto­ry of how both songs became great—the for­mer a per­son­al obses­sion of his own, the lat­ter a phe­nom­e­non cov­ered by “near­ly everyone”—in terms of a the­o­ry: some artists are Picas­so, and oth­ers are Cézanne.

Artists of the Picas­so mod­el exe­cute their works seem­ing­ly at a stroke, often after long peri­ods spent con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly assem­bling a coher­ent vision. Artists of the Cézanne mod­el exe­cute, exe­cute, and exe­cute again, refin­ing their way from an imper­fect first prod­uct to a much more per­fect final one. Some­times the first iter­a­tion a Cézanne puts out emerges at the wrong time, the ini­tial fate of “The Depor­tees Club” and “Hal­lelu­jah.” Nei­ther song, each by a musi­cian in his own way unsuit­ed to the cli­mate of pop per­fec­tion­ism that pre­vailed in the mid-1980s, found its form right away. Both would fit well into an insti­tu­tion I’ve long dreamed of called the Muse­um of First Drafts: enter and behold just how far a cre­ation still needs to go even after its “creation”—even when cre­at­ed by a Costel­lo, a Cohen or a Cézanne.

You can down­load Glad­well’s episode here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Rufus Wain­wright and 1,500 Singers Sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hal­lelu­jah”

Street Artist Plays Leonard Cohen’s “Hal­lelu­jah” With Crys­tal Glass­es

Hear a Playlist of 300 Songs That Influ­enced Elvis Costel­lo, Drawn From His New Mem­oir, Unfaith­ful Music & Dis­ap­pear­ing Ink

Mal­colm Glad­well Has Launched a New Pod­cast, Revi­sion­ist His­to­ry: Hear the First Episode

Mal­colm Glad­well Asks Hard Ques­tions about Mon­ey & Mer­i­toc­ra­cy in Amer­i­can High­er Edu­ca­tion: Stream 3 Episodes of His New Pod­cast

Mal­colm Glad­well: Tax­es Were High and Life Was Just Fine

Mal­colm Glad­well: What We Can Learn from Spaghet­ti Sauce

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Chris Magee says:

    I’m a long time fan of Elvis Costel­lo. With much antic­i­pa­tion, I saw Elvis Costel­lo per­form just last Sat­ur­day, August 27, 2016 at the Ohana Fes­ti­val in Dana Point, CA. Sad­ly, iter­a­tive or not, even genius can get “phoned-in” on occa­sion. In this case, he picked up a bull horn at one point of the per­for­mance and lit­er­al­ly “mega-phoned-in” a part of a song. I think it was “The Oth­er Side of Sum­mer”. What­ev­er art was being worked on lost the crowd. Luck­i­ly it was a pret­ty after­noon in a beau­ti­ful place, Maybe next time.

  • JV says:

    I saw the same show in CA a few months ago and was blown away. The mega­phone bit was sub­lime. I guess you caught him on an off night.

    As for Hal­lelu­jah, I first heard it via the Cale cov­er in the movie Basquiat and then looked up the orig­i­nal. I pre­ferred the Cale ver­sion back then, but over the years, Cohen’s under­stat­ed, soul­ful per­for­mance of it has won me over. Could be, as you write, I was­n’t ready for it back then. Nev­er did like the Buck­ley ver­sion that much, although of course he had a heav­en­ly voice.

  • Rich Callahan says:

    Glad­well’s “Hallelujah“t beau­ti­ful­ly and mov­ing­ly describes the music, then moves to pow­er­ful insights on cre­ativ­i­ty, hard work, and the nature of how each of us can bet­ter under­stand our con­tri­bu­tions.

    The sto­ry of the music is well told, but to focus only on the songs is to miss the shift to the dif­fer­ent paths of genius. This dis­cus­sion inspires me as fac­ul­ty in both teach­ing and my own writ­ing.

    When I com­pare this pod­cast with Glad­well’s “Car­los Does Not Remem­ber”, anoth­er valu­able set of insights emerge on teach­ing, edu­ca­tion, genius and devel­op­ment of the con­tri­bu­tions in each of us.

    I am grate­ful for how Glad­well crafts the research and sto­ry telling to offer these thought­ful insights. I look for­ward to future “Revi­sion­ist His­to­ry”

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