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“Hallelujah” Is Minor Leonard Cohen




As usual, Wainwright’s heart is in the right place, and it makes sense to use that song for the threat. But I can’t help but be dismayed by the extent to which this song has come to swallow Cohen’s oeuvre. I think it’s been long understood, including by the man himself, that it’s long been overplayed — presumably Zack Snyder discovering it was the point of no return. But it’s also true that the song is pretty much Leonard Cohen for people who don’t like Leonard Cohen. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a good song, nice melody and a clever, well-turned lyric. That Cohen has written dozens of better ones is as much of a testament to his genius as it is to the song being overrated. But…let’s do it this way. Songs on Various Positions, ranked:

1. “Dance Me to the End of Love”
2. “Night Comes On”
3. “Coming Back to You”
4. “If It Be Your Will”

5. “The Captain”
6. “Heart With No Companion”
7. “Hallelujah”
8. “The Law”

9. “Hunter’s Lullaby”

Now, I’ll concede that the two songs I rank just above “Hallelujah” are just catchy, entertaining minor Cohen songs that I would be surely sick of if they were used in 80% of the world’s soundtracks and covered by 99% of its lounge singers, and my ranking is cranky and idiosyncratic. But that the four best songs are mind-blowingly good, more ambitious and complex and accomplished than “Hallelujah” is a hill I’ll die on anytime.

I could stack the deck further here by noting that Various Positions wasn’t even released by Cohen’s primary label in the United States, but that’s misleading, not only because commercial potential is a highly unreliable indicator of aesthetic quality but because the very good-to-exceptional material was undermined by particularly cheesy early-80s production and arrangements. (Cohen knows what he’s doing when he puts the live version of “Dance Me” on his tastefully selected compilations.) But nonetheless it’s not one of his very best records. A full ranking would require additional reflection and listening time, but just naming albums I’m sure I prefer to Various Positions I’ll cite in chronological order Songs Of, Songs of Love and Hate, New Skin for the Old Ceremony, I’m Your Man, and The Future, with Ten New Songs on about the same level. I really hope that Cohen’s body of work doesn’t continue to be largely reduced to like the fifth best song on like his sixth-best record.

While I’m hot-taking here, I will also assert that Cohen’s original remains the best version — more histrionic versions by more technically gifted singers undermine the sense of humor and just make it pompous. And if there must be a canonical cover version make it John Cale’s rather than Buckley’s.

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