I can understand the compulsion so many artists have to cover the Great Great Man who is Leonard Cohen, just as much as I find said compulsion so puzzling. Cohen, to me, is one of those people who writes music so infused with his personality and--more importantly--his vocal strengths and quirks that it's almost impossible to leave another artist's imprint on them. People who try to cover Leonard Cohen more often than not sound like they're imitating Leonard Cohen...which makes covering said Cohen song a moot point. After all, if I'm going to be listening to someone trying to imitate Leonard Cohen, I might as well just, you know, listen to Leonard Cohen.
Now there have been people who have broken away from that stigma--Hell, the song we're discussing right now was covered by Jeff Buckley so sublimely that many people believe he 'owns' the song the way Johnny Cash 'owned' Trent Reznor's 'Hurt.' One of my favorite examples of this is a version of 'Everybody Knows' that was turned into a bluegrass rave-up by Canadian folk act The Dukhs. But more often than not, the long, long line of artists trying their hand at a Cohen composition end up going down this path of Imitation Begets Flattery, and what results is a pale ghost of an original that maybe the imitator shouldn't have tried to duplicate.
Of course, the thing that puzzles me the most about People Who Cover Cohen is that there's a smallish grouping of songs Cohen wrote and performed that are a lot more adaptable to reinterpretation--a lot of the stuff off Death of A Ladies' Man, for example, seems to be ripe for covering due to the way Phil Spector's production seems to mask and/or minimize a lot of Cohen's quirks as a singer--that are almost always untouched. When a new artist approaches his canon, it's always 'Suzanne,' or 'Bird On A Wire,' or...well, this song.
What makes this interpretation unique is that it's done by opera singer Renne Fleming for her album Dark Hope, which is a pretty odd album to begin with. Dark Hope is composed of Fleming, a full lyric soprano, covering rock and pop songs, mostly of the indie variety. Not surprisingly, many of these songs she chooses to cover are, like this one, 'safe' crowd pleasers like Peter Gabriel's 'In Your Eyes' and Death Cab For Cutie's 'Soul Meets Body.' And her version of 'Hallelujah' is, sadly, exactly what I expected. There was a moment at the very beginning where Fleming's producer David Kahne chooses to do this massive instrumental intro that threatens to transform the song into something apocalyptic...and then those plinking strings come in and the inherent Cohen-ness of the composition comes crashing in. And what follows is another case of nothing new under the sun. Sure, it's musically accomplished, but it's no different from the fifteen other covers of this song.
That being said...and this might be the biggest flaw of this version...it's an awfully cold interpretation. According to Wikipedia, the Dark Hope project was put together with the intention of not making a crossover album, but of creating a collection of modern songs without any hint of operatic vocal strength. But it's hard to escape that while this is a version that is difficult to find fault with, it's also difficult to find it anything other than an exercise. Fleming's voice never infuses the lyrics with any sort of emotionality, leaving us with just a really well crafted recreation of a beloved song. I may never have liked Jeff Buckley as a whole, but I'll take his version over this one every day because at least there's a sincerity and a sense of love and desire in his voice that Fleming lacks.
You know, I'd be perfectly happy to never have to hear a cover of this song again. I've talked in the past about how artists should be banned from doing certain songs because of their overuse by lazy bands who think a by-the-numbers cover of an instantly recognizable song is a great way to jump start a career. I think 'Hallelujah' is one of those songs, and Ms. Fleming's mannered version has done nothing to convince me otherwise.
Well, I can still hold out hope that somewhere in America or Canada or England or Australia, some band in some garage is even now listening to Death of A Ladies' Man and thinking that it'd be really cool to cover 'Don't Go Home With Your Hard On.'
Here's Fleming doing the song on BBC One...