Anasthasia Shilov

“Hallelujah” was written by Leonard Cohen, but Jeff Buckley made it magnificent.

It is the sixth track of his only complete studio album, “Grace.” At the beginning of “Hallelujah,” right before he starts to play, Jeff Buckley lets out a sigh — not an expression of sadness or exhaustion, but rather of acceptance. It falls at the very beginning of the song, in the exact middle of the album, and it is Jeff Buckley’s grace.

How can I praise an artist for a song whose lyrics he didn’t write? I’ve had countless arguments with friends about which version of “Hallelujah” is better, Cohen’s or Buckley’s. Their claims always boil down to one simple point: Cohen wrote “Hallelujah,” Buckley didn’t.

I’m not saying that creativity isn’t important, or that writing beautiful lyrics isn’t worthy of high praise. On the contrary, great lyrics are essential for a great song. But it takes a fundamentally different kind of artistry to approach the poetry of someone else’s universe, to make sacred an articulated human experience that is not your own. It requires more than humility. It requires grace.

I have come to discover that great art is nothing more than the shedding of skin, the temporary transformation of one human being into another. And so the sigh at the beginning of “Hallelujah” heralds a sacrifice, a necessary renunciation of the self as Buckley attempts to embody someone else’s lyrics, someone else’s experience.

He is successful. His triumph is a communion with Cohen’s lyrics, echoed by the roundness in the way he plucks the guitar.

In that moment, Buckley reminds me of the poet John Keats. They share a prophetic nature, a keen awareness of their own mortality and its delicate connection to their art. “For many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death,” Keats says in his poem “Ode to a Nightingale.” His work is full of little deaths: seasons changing, flowers wilting, day fading to evening. Buckley’s sigh is a little death, too. Together, they trace the delicate line linking the mortal soul to the eternal, artistic one. They are generations apart, but they are still the same. Listening to “Hallelujah” for me is really just reading “To Autumn.” Keats becomes Buckley. Buckley becomes Keats.

Jeff Buckley died when he was 30 years old. The circumstances surrounding his death are murky; he’d been acting erratically for a couple of weeks, and one day decided to go for a spontaneous swim in a river. He must have drowned, because his body was found upstream in Memphis a few days later. Keats died young, too.

I said Jeff Buckley was a prophet, and I believe it. If you listen closely enough, you can hear in “Hallelujah” the echoes of his own death: the somber, earthly reverberations of that sigh and everything it meant. I think he knew, in the same heart-breaking way that Keats did.

We can’t help but find it hard to reconcile premonition and celebration. How can every line end with the same hallelujah? How can the little deaths that pepper their art be a source of rejoicing? How can the major lift and the minor fall be the same?

But the genius of Buckley’s artistry is not only the lack of space between himself and Cohen, but the lack of space between himself and the listener. For a moment, for the space of a song, we understand. His grace and his sacrifice make sense to us. We are invited to commune with Cohen, with Buckley, and there we find Keats and countless other artists, too. We share in the tradition of transformation — seasons changing, skin shedding, songs covered again and again. We are vulnerable, and we are emboldened.

Sophie Pollack |