Last week, Leonard Cohen, one of the greatest artists of all time, tragically passed away. So remarkable were Cohen’s songwriting powers that his 1984 ballad “Hallelujah” has become one of the most-covered tunes in reality TV history. Therefore, when The Voice aired this Monday, it hardly would have been surprising if one of the top 12 contestants had performed “Hallelujah,” in the hopes of having an emotional, Matthew Schuler/Jordan Smith-like TV moment.
However, while one contestant, Team Miley’s Ali Caldwell, did pay tribute to Cohen on Monday, instead of going with “Hallelujah,” she sang the much more obscure “Did I Ever Love You,” from Cohen’s 2014 album Popular Problems. This was keeping in line with Miley Cyrus’s refreshing season-long strategy of leftfield song selections — so far, her contestants have covered Odetta, Pink Floyd, and Melanie, and this week, another Team Miley member, Aaron Gibson, even did Father John Misty. However, it was a strategy that could have backfired for Ali, who, like probably many viewers at home, was unfamiliar with “Did I Ever Love You.” Ali even had to read the lyrics off a cheat sheet during rehearsal. But thankfully, Ali put her full trust in Miley’s artistic instincts, despite the risks involved. And since it’s almost impossible to not connect with Cohen’s incredible music, particularly for a natural talent like Ali, she ended up with her Season 11 hallelujah moment — if not an actual “Hallelujah” moment.
Looking stunning in a red Jessica Rabbit gown and Rihanna-red hair while brandishing a single red rose, Ali put a red-hot, soul-diva spin on the song (a very different take from the original, since Cohen’s sleepy, craggy, technically imperfect vocals admittedly probably wouldn’t have earned even a one-chair turn on this show). This was a brilliant performance. It was a testament to both Ali’s artistry and Cohen’s that was she was able to make the song her own — and make it seem like she’d been singing it for years.
“That was a real moment, not only because of the way you owned the stage, but the way you let everybody in,” raved Alicia Keys. “I’m just happy that Leonard could hear this,” Miley added sweetly, pointing heavenward.
Excuse me. I think I have something in my eye… Let’s take a break and listen to Cohen’s version for a couple minutes.
OK, now. Back to the recap. Ali’s performance may have been the only Cohen cover of the night (though I wouldn’t rule other contestants doing “Hallelujah” before this season is over), but it wasn’t Monday’s only standout. Here’s how everyone else did:
Sundance Head (Team Blake)
Host Carson Daly awkwardly referred to Sundance as “the lone country contestant on Team Blake” — while Austin Allsup probably stood in the wings, glowering. Oops. But Carson can be forgiven for temporarily forgetting about Austin — because Sundance is slowly but surely becoming the star player on Blake’s team. Gender-flipping a new-school country classic by CMAs 2016 Best New Artist winner Maren Morris, “My Church,” and taking it to church with a solid, spirited, butt-kicking, barn-storming performance, Sundance did special guest advisor Garth Brooks proud this Monday.
Alicia called Sundance “so spectacular!” Miley told him, “I think you were made for this environment. You were made to be on a big stage.” Added proud coach Blake Shelton: “You’re what we all strive for.” Honestly, I still can’t believe this is the greasy guy who stiffly sang “Knights in White Satin” while rocking a headful of prickly Guy Fieri pomade and a Men’s Wearhouse suit on American Idol 10 years ago. Sundance wasn’t ready for prime time then — but now, he’s practically ready for the CMA Awards himself.
Darby Walker (Team Miley)
OK, first the good news: Darby’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” was her strongest performance yet, showcasing more of her actual, authentic voice and relying less on her vocal gimmicks and cutesy, quirky-girl affectations. And now, the bad news: I still found her grating. Maybe it was the distracting staging and styling — the swirling Laugh-In backdrop, the garland-festooned mic stand, the Coachella-circa-2010 flower crown, the Endora-on-Bewitched hippie frock. It was a lot. And it was very much like a high school production of Hair. Also distracting: Darby’s phrasing, which drastically deviated from the Glimmer Twins’ beloved original, sometimes twisting it beyond recognition.
The judges, I mean coaches, didn’t do much judging, or coaching, as usual. They instead overpraised Darby, with Blake even telling her, “I can’t express enough how important that performance was for you.” Well, maybe he couldn’t express it because it just wasn’t that good. Maybe Miley should have saved Belle Jewel or Sophia Urista last week instead. And I wonder if America will save Darby this week. When Darby warbled, “Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday,” I couldn’t help but think she might be saying goodbye to The Voice this Tuesday.
Christian Cuevas (Team Alicia)
I don’t think anyone can find fault with Christian’s vocals on a technical level (Garth Brooks said, “He’s got a voice that’s just effortless”). But Christian’s emotional connection to his material could use some work. For instance, this week he dedicated Coldplay’s “The Scientist” to his girlfriend, seemingly oblivious to the ballad’s lyrics about heartbreak and loss. What’s next? Will he cover R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” or the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” two other alt-rock hits often mistaken by casual listeners for love songs? Anyway, while I think casual viewers may appreciate Christian’s performance, his inappropriately upbeat interpretation of the saddest song in Coldplay’s sad-sack catalog left me, well, cold.
But the coaches thought this was fantastic, of course. Adam Levine told Christian, “I wish you were on my team.” Alicia told him, “You have this uncanny ability to take any song from anywhere and make it yours and be inside of it… You nailed it, man.” I just want to know what Christian’s girlfriend thought of this dedication, really.
Sa’Rayah (Team Alicia)
Sa’Rayah has been slaying all season, but after this week’s cringeworthy cover of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” she better start praying for votes. Nothing about this felt fresh, modern, or sexy, like Sa’Rayah’s past fiercer-than-Sasha performances. The bedazzled unitard, big production, and big hair, paired with a song choice straight out of the Rock of Ages Playbill, felt dated and hokey. But even more disappointingly, for the first time this season, Sa’Rayah didn’t seem entirely comfortable onstage. She was manic, unfocused, and shrill, and she surprisingly let the backup singers do most of the work.
Surprise, surprise: The coaches liked it. (They’re the opposite of that kid Mikey from the 1970s Life cereal commercials. They like everything!) Alicia called Sa’Rayah a “true artist.” Miley was a fan of Sa’Rayah’s new lite-metal direction, gushing, “I love seeing you in that space.” But I predict the space we’ll soon see Sa’Rayah in is the bottom three.
Billy Gilman (Team Adam)
The rehearsal set was one big lovey-dovey reunion between Garth Brooks and former child country star Billy, but Billy stayed focused on his mission to leave his Nashville past behind with this week’s song choice: “The Show Must Go On,” by Queen. This was a statement song, a song about moving on with his life as he rebuilds his career, and Billy was clearly feeling it.
Was I feeling it? Sort of. Billy is one of the strongest singers of Season 11, and he handled Freddie Mercury’s power vocals with ease. His final money note was especially magnificent. However, this was very polished — as one would expect of someone who’d been performing in the national spotlight practically since birth — and Billy totally lacked Freddie’s edge, excitement, and grit. This was more like a performance from the Broadway musical We Will Rock You than actual rock. (Maybe that’s not an insult. I actually think Billy would be awesome on Broadway. I could see Tonys in his future, even.)
Blake was impressed, commending Billy for not giving up and saying, “At the end of the day, as great as a singer that you were [as a kid], you are a million times better as an adult. It’s unbelievable.” Said Adam: “What could possibly epitomize this show more than someone who sings the way you do with the level of conviction that you do?… You are truly special.”
So, I’m getting déjà vu here. Jordan Smith had the voice of an angel, didn’t have a whole lot of grit, covered Queen, was the frontrunner from episode one… and he won Season 9. Is Voice history about to repeat itself with Billy? Perhaps!
Austin Allsup (Team Blake)
Speaking of grit — and of leftfield song choices — Austin really had it going on this week. He was a revelation doing Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” performing with Black Crowes-y, blues-rock swing and swagger. Hmmm. Maybe Carson Daly was right. Maybe Austin isn’t a straight-up country artist. There are many layers to this guy. He’s a little bit Americana, a little bit Memphis soul, a little bit country, and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. And every week, he intrigues me and earns a little bit more of my respect.
“I didn’t know you had those notes in you… I’m really impressed,” gushed Miley. “There’s a new era of outlaw country music happening, and I’ll be damned if there’s anyone in that group that can sing like you do,” said Blake. Well, I’ll take Austin’s outlaw country vibes over Josh Gallagher’s bro-country blandness any day of the week — especially if that day is Monday on The Voice. But I’m getting ahead of myself. More on Josh in a bit…
Wé McDonald (Team Alicia)
Wow. I think I just saw Wé grow up right before my eyes. Just a couple weeks ago, she was an adorable little girl with ringlets and a pink bow tie. This week, doing Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” while playing piano, she was so mature and sophisticated — actually reminding me of former teen prodigy Alicia Keys, Wé’s own coach. Finally, Wé’s resonant, throaty, womanly voice matched her onstage persona. Everything about this performance worked, on every level. It’s not like Wé didn’t deserve her hype before, but if anyone was worried that she’d peak too early or lose momentum going into the Live Playoffs, those fears were effectively dashed tonight.
“You. Are. The. Real. Deal. You are somebody that no one can ever forget. I am so proud of you,” Alicia raved. OK, I take back what I said a few paragraphs ago. Billy Gilman is not going to win. Season 11 is Wé McDonald’s season to lose.
Aaron Gibson (Team Miley)
Miley admitted that Father John Misty’s “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” was a risky song choice — Aaron’s choice, not Miley’s — but in the end she was glad that she let Aaron stick to his singular artistic vision. I was delighted, too. I never, ever thought I’d hear a Father John Misty song on The Voice, and it was a song that truly defined Aaron’s indie-rock aesthetic (certainly more so that last week’s dreary Counting Crows cover) and worked with his pained, ragged voice. However, I am concerned that this show’s mainstream audience won’t appreciate a dark, lyrically dense song by an ex-Fleet Foxes member that references grandfathers’ funerals and takes the Lord’s son’s name in vain. (Aaron was probably smart to omit Misty’s line about “Adderall and weed,” although that may have been the NBC censors’ doing.)
“Your voice is so special, you have the responsibility to be a singer. It would be a disservice to the world to not do it,” said Adam. “I do think it’s important to have someone who sounds like you… We haven’t had quite someone like you on the show before,” said Miley, before begging America to vote. I hope America listened to her. I want Aaron to stick around for at least a few more weeks and cover songs by Iron and Wine, Devendra Banhart, and Band of Horses!
Courtney Harrell (Team Blake)
If there’s any song more overdone on singing competitions than Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” it’s Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” aka “The Asteroid Song.” No one ever needs to cover this song ever again. The only person I want to hear perform “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” is Steven Tyler — and even then, I’d rather hear Steven do anything off Toys in the Attic instead.
But I digress. My point is, this was yet another head-scratching song choice from Courtney, following last week’s weird Roxette misstep. Courtney started off the season so strong, but she’s starting to lose her funky coolness with these awkward performances. What happened to the dynamite lady who slayed Tina Turner and Etta James just a couple weeks ago?
Well, maybe America will love this. Many more people know this Diane Warren mega-ballad than, say, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” and familiarity often breeds votes. America didn’t vote for Courtney last week — she was Blake’s pick — but Blake seemed sure that this performance was “evidence that I might the right choice.” He also told Courtney, “You’re having your moment right now — that moment that you deserve.”
Josh Gallagher (Team Adam)
I don’t have much to say about Josh’s by-the-book cover of Jason Aldean’s “Why” except… why? Why is he still on this show? Yes, he’s a solid singer with what they call in the biz a “recordable voice,” and he’s easy enough on the eyes. But does that warrant him a spot in the top 12 over some other, more interesting contestants that have already gone home? I say no.
That being said, Josh, who just got married last month, had some nice tender moments here. He performed the first half of the song seated on a stool in the audience, and ended it by dramatically dropping to his knees, seemingly overwhelmed by newlywed emotion. But on a night when powerhouses like Sundance, Ali, and Wé delivered such vivacious performances, one well-placed knee-drop wasn’t enough to make a lasting impression on me.
Said Blake, who gave up Josh in the Knockouts to Adam: “You never know if you’ve made the wrong or right choice as a coach… but Josh, you do deserve to be on the show.” I am certain that Josh will make it through to the next round, and probably the round after that and round after that. I just hope that he uses his time on the show wisely, and finally does something a little more outside-the-box and unexpected. I don’t need to sit through a season of predictable, bar-band-level Zac Brown and Jason Aldean covers.
Brendan Fletcher (Team Adam)
When I learned that mild-mannered Brendan was going to do “Whipping Post” by the Allman Brothers, I was shocked. He just didn’t seem like the fiery Southern rocker type. I was even more shocked when he revealed he that used to be in a metal band! This guy apparently has some layers, too. For the first time this season, I truly witnessed passion and personality from Brendan. Some of his past performances have felt small, inward-facing, and timid, but Brendan went for it this time. Whatever was holding him back, he broke through that barrier tonight. “This guy was not this guy for a long time, and he just became the guy you saw now,” Adam said wordily.
So now, it is prediction time. Who’s going home Tuesday? I think Sa’Rayah and Darby, neither of whom secured the public vote last week, should be the most worried — but Aaron and Courtney should also start rehearsing their “Save Me” songs right now. And all 12 contestants’ fans better be on Twitter and ready to hashtag their hearts out on Tuesday night. See you then.