FINAL SCORE: (2) JEFF BUCKLEY 73, (3) Sinead O’Connor 35
(3) Sinead O'Connor, "Three Babies"
(3) Sinead O'Connor, "Three Babies"
Analysis by Laura C. J. Owen
The question that’s already dogged this song in this tournament is why it’s not “Nothing Compares 2 U” (the songs are from the same I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got album).
I am a certainly a big Sad Fan of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the video for which (Sinead: staring straight at the camera, singing and crying) represented one of my most shameful, secret, teenage Sad Music acts: staring into the mirror, whilst reciting sad music/poetry/love letters, whilst crying.
Similar to Sinead, I’m a Northern European style pale. While other Arizona teens ran around in the sun, the only time I ever really liked the way I looked was when I stared into the mirror, facing my sharply-angled, pale face, and thick, black eyebrows, while I recited sad music and admired the artful fall of my tears. The “Nothing Compares 2 U,” video and song, showed me that I wasn’t the only one who benefited from this aesthetic.
But here’s the other thing: “Nothing Compares 2 U” is written by Prince. Which isn’t bad—Prince is the best. But he’s just so...cool. Wonderful, but not mortal. So it was disappointing for Teenage Me to discover that he wrote “Nothing Compares 2 U.” I wanted bald, odd, pale, sad Sinead O’Connor to have written it. It hurt me that the song wasn’t autobiographical.
And as has already been discussed, “Three Babies” is closely, painfully autobiographical / confessional: it’s a song that’s close to un-coverable. It’s all Sinead.
Arguably, autobiographical connection shouldn’t matter, not when the cover is glorious, but Sinead’s epically messy life—in all its Pope-protesting, musician-feuding, public suicidal breakdown glory and squalor—is an important part of her legacy, and difficult to disentangle from her music. It’s not hard to imagine Sinead staring into the mirror and crying, not because of her famous video but because her entire career is based on that kind of embarrassing, beautiful sincerity, a willingness to blab secrets, commit to extreme positions and then retract them, to be always, uncomfortably, inconveniently, annoyingly, tragically honest, even when being honest requires that you be histrionic and contradictory.
In a way, “Three Babies” is about celebrating those inconvenient, tragic bits of ourselves. “Each of these, my three babies, I will carry with me, for myself,” Sinead sings, “There’s no other way I could be.” The song is sad, but peaceful. Loss is with us always, Sinead says, part our blood and bones, but that is something to be celebrated as well as mourned. Instead of reveling defiantly in the dysfunction of loss, it admits the necessity of loss to informing who we become: "No longer mad like a horse / I'm still wild but not lost / From the thing that I've chosen to be / And it's ‘cause you've thrilled me / Silenced me / Stilled me / Proved things I never believed"
Loss lives on within us; we carry Russian-nesting-doll versions of ourselves inside us at all times: the sad teenager, the defiant daughter, the grieving mother. Within us, the dead still live. No one else can carry them.
Laura C. J. Owen is a writer and teacher in Tucson, Arizona. You can see more of her writing here.
(2) Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah”
Analysis by Elena Passarello
Jeff Buckley covered Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—one of those covers that’s so powerful, it endangers the original— in 1994. I was an un-blossomed sixteen, and such an easy target for Buckley’s special trick of rewashing songs in beautiful sadness. The love that he promised me in his perfect vox was full of bodies and moonlight and urban melancholy. His was the first version of the song I ever heard, and sweet Lord, it stuck on me.
I’d be in last period Bio, five miles away from my bedroom and my boom-box, and just aching for the chance to go home and play it. I’d tell myself I was one fetal pig dissection and one school bus ride away from its first note, which isn’t a sung note at all, but a feathery expulsion of breath: hhhhuhh. Breath on a neck, a lover’s last breath, or a dejected sigh—no matter what it signifies, that breath is like a reset button, blowing away all the sinister horniness of Cohen’s original take and replacing it with high, earnest emotion.
This bracket might not be the place for (probably poor) musical analysis, but doing so makes the best case for why this song is super sad, so bear with me. “Hallelujah” is technically sad, and that schematic sadness begins with the two-string intro of Buckley’s guitar. He plays Cohen’s C-major melody line, slowed to a crawl, on the high E-string, and then adds the wrong part of a C-minor chord—a D-sharp—on the string beneath it. A major tune with a minor underbelly. That wonky minor shift, paired with that opening sigh, tells us that the wry “Hallelujah” of Leonard Cohen is about to crumble. And then Jeff Buckley starts to sing.
One of my favorite things about “Hallelujah” is that first verse tells you how the song will manufacture its sadness: “well it goes like this, the fourth the fifth / the minor fall, the major lift...” That chord progression is the see-saw that builds an uneasy foundation under the melody. And the melody itself allows for sadness, too. Not so much in Cohen’s version, because he tunelessly drawls through his cheeky verses and chorus, but definitely in Buckley’s more articulate melody line (which Buckley lifted from John Cale’s 1991 cover; we really should give Cale the credit for finding the sadness in this song).
The back half of each verse climbs up the C-scale, note by note, over three measures. It rises all the way into the next octave, to which Buckley ascends in his oily and perfect head voice:
The fourth, the fifth/ the mi-nor fall the ma-jor lift/ the ba-ffled king com-po-sing…
G A A B B C C C C C C D D D D D D E E
What progress! What a heavenly unburdening! Those rising tones are like a water bucket down a deep well that’s being slowly pulled toward the light.
But then, right at the title word, the melody drops. The four syllables in “Ha-le-lu-jah” tumble downward from E to D to C. Back into the dark. And how brilliant that the lyric on which the melody falls is the go-to word of Judeo-Christian worship, roughly translated as “lifting up praise” to God. “God” is the “jah” of “hallelujah,” and so God is the lowest note of the descent.
The chorus is a dirge-ier version of the same concept, up three notes and then back down, all on that ironic “hallelujah” until the chorus plummets to the low root tone. And that’s it for the song— it just repeats that structure; there are no bridges or codas. In a sense, all that lovely melody work gets Buckley nowhere, and it’s sad for a melody to try so hard— to make such beautiful progress—and ultimately fail.
Technics aside, I must admit there are sadder Jeff Buckley tunes. Look no further than the songs on either side of this track on Grace: the banshee-wail of “So Real” and the murderous breakdown that is “Lover, You Should Have Come Over.” I confess, too, that twenty years past Buckley (and two decades into my actual love life), I relate more to Cohen’s dark take on the song. He seems savvier to that long-distance marathon called love. And now that I actually know what sex is, I think Cohen’s version is sexier, too.
I’m still voting for Buckley in the match-up versus Sinead O’Connor’s song, which sports less technical sadness and really is more morose than anything. And I’d bet on the youthful, pristine sadness of “Hallelujah” over “Under the Milky Way” or “Mad World” or “Fake Plastic Trees” any day. What might give “Hallelujah” a run for its money is “Joey,” which I was flat-out afraid to listen to at sixteen. Holy shit, that song is sad.
Anyway, Buckley’s “Hallelujah” is saddest to me because, on top of the great writing, it is so beautifully performed, and that beauty is now gone in more ways than one. And to put it more selfishly, it’s sad because it reminds me that I once believed in Buckley’s high-earnestness. In 1994, I thought life was this constant, pure, Byronic thing. I felt the same way about pop music. So when I hear Buckley sing, I’m sad to know I might never be as openly wooed by life than I was back then, when I’d experienced none of it.