Leonard Cohen has written many excellent songs: Suzanne, Bird on the Wire, Who by Fire, Dance Me to the End of Love, Everybody Knows, The Future, the recent Going Home, to name a few. But Hallelujah has achieved escape velocity. As Alan Light chronicles in his richly detailed study of the song's long, strange trip to prominence, it has become a pop standard, a soundtrack staple and a vehicle for vocal pyrotechnics — amusing when you consider how limited (if effective) a singer Cohen himself is.
In my mind, Cohen's only songwriting peer is Bob Dylan and, like Dylan, the Canadian singer is nearly always the best interpreter of his own work, no matter how many others record it. But both men occasionally have had a song elevated by an interpreter. Jimi Hendrix transformed Dylan's scruffy All Along the Watchtower from the album John Wesley Harding into an apocalyptic guitar anthem, influencing even the way Dylan would later play it.
Light credits performances of Hallelujah by John Cale and especially the late Jeff Buckley with resurrecting the song and making it the fixture it is today.
With its intricate braiding of the sacred and the erotic — the biblical David and Samson are invoked in two of the verses — Hallelujah is open-ended enough for many interpretations, by singers and listeners both. Singer k.d. lang's mother told her that her octogenarian friends loved the song, to lang's astonishment: Did the women listen to the lyrics about orgasm and being tied to a chair? Her mom replied that they just listen to the refrain. "Something as simple as saying 'hallelujah' over and over again, really beautifully, can redeem all the verses," lang concluded.
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Hallelujah began its recorded life inauspiciously, on Cohen's 1984 album Various Positions, which Columbia Records initially rejected; it was first released on an indie label. Cohen had worked on the lyrics for years, having written a reported 80 verses. (Cohen did not talk to Light for this book, but didn't oppose it.)
For a song that so eloquently invokes music itself, with the "secret chord" David played for the Lord, the Various Positions arrangement sounds overdone to me. Underneath the synthesizer and backing choir was a simple, beautiful melody; Light quotes ukulele star Jake Shimabukuro, among others, as pointing to the melody as the source of the song's real power.
The first singer to liberate Hallelujah from potential obscurity was Dylan, who sang it twice on his 1988 tour and praised it. For an Austin City Limits taping, Light writes, Cohen sang it with a different combination of lyrics that made the song more carnal and bitter.
Cohen's star rose with his 1988 album I'm Your Man. For the 1991 tribute album I'm Your Fan, John Cale sang a solo piano version of Hallelujah, selecting and editing Cohen's verses into a version that, in Light's words, "forever transformed the possibilities for this strange, elusive song."
If Cale was the song's editor, Light writes, the Buckley was the song's ultimate performer. His short, dazzling career before his accidental death in 1997 was so interwoven with the song that many listeners assumed he wrote it. Light also sees a generational difference in approaches, with the older Cohen and Cale singing with voices of hard-earned wisdom, while Buckley delivered a youthful, lustful yearning.
Hallelujah showed up in films and on soundtracks, notably Cale's version in the animated film Shrek, bringing the song to millions of listeners. The Shrek soundtrack recording, though, for business reasons, featured a version by Rufus Wainwright that also become popular.
In the wake of 9/11, Buckley's version was used in a video of World Trade Center footage that played nearly constantly on VH1. After 2001, Light writes, the song was established as the definitive representation of sadness for a new generation, as its use in The West Wing, Scrubs and The O.C. demonstrated.
(Hallelujah also was performed in a hilarious parody by comedian Adam Sandler during Wednesday's "12/12/12" benefit concert for Superstorm Sandy victims.)
The ultimate sign of the song's ubiquity? Its frequent appearance in American Idol and other TV singing competitions in the United States and overseas. Light gives a complimentary nod to Jason Castro's 2008 performance on Idol, describing it as "almost shockingly clean amid the overwrought melismas of most Idol singers."
The Idol performances, some as short as 90 seconds, build support for Light's thesis that the flexibility of Hallelujah has made it an enduring favorite: "Since its best-known version was already a cover, and the song's author himself altered the lyrics almost immediately after recording it, it was somehow understood the words were never truly considered fixed or set in stone. With Cohen's tacit approval, and Buckley not around to object, verses could be cut, lyrics could be changed, with no real sense of betraying the song's meaning."