In October 1992, Buckley signed with Columbia records. A year later, he entered Bearsville Studios with producer Andy Wallace along with bassist Mick Grondhal and drummer Matt Johnson to record his debut, Grace. (Former Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas and rhythm guitarist Michael Tighe would later join for a few tracks.) Wallace, who’d produced albums for Slayer and White Zombie and mixed records for Rage Against the Machine and Nirvana, said that part of the odyssey of making Grace was not only Buckley’s determination to make it a band record, but also how to best capture the energy of his solo performances.

Though the band had been playing shows and rehearsing to get in shape for such ambitious, big-screen Buckley compositions as “Grace” (which would become the title track) and “Mojo Pin,” everyone also agreed that the album should retain some connection to the solo work that first attracted such attention. To allow for maximum spontaneity, Wallace had set up an “acoustic area” separate from the band placement in the studio, which was ready to go whenever Buckley felt the urge to wander over and play by himself.

“After dinner or whenever, Jeff would just come in and run through his set,” said the producer. “We tried to have some semblance of an audience, maybe six or twelve people around, so there was no temptation to stop, but just to play it all through. I wanted to record him as intimately as possible, so it felt like you were sitting two feet in front of him, which was the best place to see him in those tiny clubs.”

“We didn’t do ‘recording sessions,’” said Steve Berkowitz, who was the executive producer overseeing the making of the album that came to be called Grace. “Jeff played the songs, and they got recorded. We tried hard not to have a barrier, just let him play, just be in it. To give him an atmosphere, an immediacy—like Dylan or Miles Davis, just to make music. Andy can make himself invisible, so when Jeff would go over and start to play, he wouldn’t say anything, just, ‘Get the mic into position and let’s go.’

“The process was so developmental, no one knew what the record was going to be,” said Berkowitz. “There was such a deep well of possibilities to choose from, it was such a tough task for Jeff.” As the sessions continued to evolve, it was clear that Buckley needed to keep things going in the studio longer than planned. He left for a while to tour, returning for final sessions in early 1994, now with guitarist Tighe as part of the studio band. A four-song EP, recorded live at Sin-e, was released in December of 1993 as a stopgap to buy some more time.

Buckley continued to accumulate more and more material, but there was never any doubt that “Hallelujah” would be a leading contender for the final album. “There were a lot of these solo songs to sort through,” said Wallace, who didn’t know the song prior to his work with Buckley and had not heard the Cohen recording, “but there was never any question about this one going on the album, that it was something special. It had a magic to it, and that was there from the beginning.”

Buckley returned to the song again and again in the studio; by some accounts, he recorded more than twenty takes of “Hallelujah” over the course of the sessions. Wallace recalls one version that began with an extended minor-key introduction. The final recording is actually a composite created from multiple takes, though memories differ as to how extensive the patchwork actually is: The producer thinks it was “pretty much straight-ahead,” mostly one version with some fixes, while Berkowitz remembers a more elaborate process that stitched together a bunch of parts. “Even when we thought it was done, and we were doing the final mix, Jeff decided he needed to do one more overdub,” he said.

The variations and refinements weren’t dramatic; they represented Buckley searching for the subtleties and nuances he wanted, for a precise shading in the ultimate delivery of this song that he had come to inhabit so fully. A pause here, a breath there, a guitar fill—he was teasing out the slight changes that would express the feelings he was striving to communicate. “He didn’t rearrange the words,” said
Berkowitz. “He simply Buckley-ized them.”

“By the time he recorded it, he’d sung the song a hundred times, maybe three hundred times,” said Flanagan. “He knew what he was going for; he knew what was in it. I think in a lot of ways it was the song he was struggling to write himself, and here he found that someone had written it for him.”

The nearly seven-minute-long recording of “Hallelujah” that appears on Grace opens, unforgettably, with the sound of Buckley exhaling, immediately establishing a romantic sense of drama and intimacy. (Berkowitz noted that the breath came from Buckley’s exhaustion after playing for several hours, not because he was just sitting down and starting cold.) He begins with a gentle, rolling introduction on his guitar that establishes a mood instantly, a riveting sense of focus and intensity; on the BBC, Guy Garvey noted that Buckley’s instrumental introduction “moves from sorrow and uncertainty into confident, joyful chords before he has even sung a word.” Sticking with Cale’s five-verse structure,
Buckley’s guitar accompaniment slowed down Cale’s piano arpeggios and built a subtly propulsive arrangement that was tender yet powerful: A full decade after its initial recording, “Hallelujah” was finally given a melodic framework to match its masterful lyrics.

Buckley’s magnificent, soaring voice radically altered the feel of the song; he himself called the song “a hallelujah to the orgasm…an ode to life and love.” Where the older Cohen and Cale sang the words with a sense of experience and perseverance, of hard lessons won, this rising star delivered the lyrics with swooning emotion, both fragile and indomitable. By balancing this slightly melodramatic reading with the simple, stripped-down sound of a solo guitar, he also avoided having the whole thing become too overwrought and risk collapsing under its own weight.

In Buckley’s hands, “Hallelujah” was transformed into a youthful vision of romantic agony and sexual triumph. (Buckley actually expressed some doubts about the emotional liberties taken by his rendition, saying that he hoped Cohen wouldn’t hear it.) In her book examining Grace as part of the 33 1/3 series, in which each volume is dedicated to the consideration of a single rock album, Princeton professor Daphne Brooks called Buckley’s performance “gospel music with sex, desire and love tangled together and representing the keys to existential revelation and resurrection.”

“When you hear the Jeff Buckley version,” said ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, “it’s so intimate it’s almost like you’re invading his personal space, or you’re listening to something that you weren’t supposed to hear.”

“It’s a hymn to being alive,” Buckley said in 1994. “It’s a hymn to love lost. To love. Even the pain of existence, which ties you to being human, should receive an amen—or a hallelujah.”

Glen Hansard—a lifelong Cohen fan, who remembers going to a Cohen concert when he was a teenager in Dublin—compares the two interpretations by way of a 1978 prose piece by Cohen titled “How to Speak Poetry.” Closely paraphrasing the original text, Hansard said that Cohen’s instruction was to “deliver the line and step aside. Don’t lift your shoulders when you say the word butterfly—you are a vessel that’s about delivering the words.”

“So Leonard’s version is typical of what he would do, but Jeff gave it wings, he lifted his chest. He gave us the version we hoped Leonard would emote, and he wasn’t afraid to sing it with absolute reverence. Jeff sang it back to Leonard as a love song to what he achieved, and in doing so, Jeff made it his own. Leonard penned it, but Jeff owned it.”