It may be easier to name artists who haven’t covered Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” than to list those who have. But finding those who’ve done it with sensitivity, insight or invention is another thing altogether. Unlike oft-covered songs from the pop canon — John Lennon’s “Imagine” or Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” — Cohen’s 1984 song isn’t simple or sentimental. It’s a simultaneous anthem and admission, a poetic leap embedded with surrender — plus snark, eros and faith. As daunting as its depths can be, they also provide a great opportunity: “Hallelujah” is such an enigma, great interpretive singers can find whatever meaning they want in it.
“There’s no wrong way to sing ‘Hallelujah,’” concluded music journalist Alan Light, in his book-length study of the song’s history and power. But there are certainly better ways. With news of Cohen’s death on Thursday, look back at some of the best interpretations below.
No singer has brought out the sensuality of the song more profoundly than Jeff Buckley. His take, featured on his 1994 debut album Grace, aches with love and wonder. He’s enraptured from the start, idealizing the carnality of the lyrics without missing their religious transcendence. So engrossing is Buckley’s reading that, for years, many thought he must have penned the song.