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Hallelujah Time

The polarizing power of Leonard Cohen’s classic song

John S. W. MacDonald
February 03, 2009

On February 19, Leonard Cohen will perform his first concert on U.S. soil in 15 years. The appearance, at New York’s Beacon Theatre, will mark the latest stop on the Canadian singer-songwriter’s somewhat improbable world tour, begun last May in Canada. The 74-year-old has played to rapturous audiences in Dublin, Copenhagen, Bruges, and Bucharest, in Manchester, Oslo, Auckland, and Lisbon. So why now? What could have prompted a gray-haired old poet to face the vagaries of life on the road?

After 42 years as a cult figure, the Godfather of Gloom has a hit single to promote. (Of course, there’s also the matter of Cohen recouping some of the $5 million his former manager and lover, Kelley Lynch, stole from him.) It all started when dreadlocked Jason Castro sang Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on American Idol last March. Simon Cowell was duly impressed, as were American audiences who promptly sent Jeff Buckley’s 1994 cover of the same song to the top of the iTunes charts.

In December, the “Hallelujah” hysteria spread to England where 20-year-old Alexandra Burke—the winner of Britain’s American Idol counterpart, X Factor—hit the top of the Christmas charts with her own cover of the song. Fans disgusted with Burke’s bombastic, gospelized take on the Cohen classic launched an Internet campaign dedicated to Buckley’s version, propelling it to No. 2. “Hallelujah”’s success marked the first time two versions of the same song took the top two spots in England in over 50 years. Not to be outdone, the Cohen original, from the 1984 album Various Positions, rode the Hallelujah choir all the way to no. 36, giving Cohen his first ever Top 40 hit.

Listen to “Hallelujah” by Alexandra Burke

“Hallelujah”’s triple hit, beyond fattening Cohen’s wallet, also demonstrated the ferocious allegiance fans have toward one version of the song over the others. And there’s no shortage of competitors— lists nearly 200 recorded covers of the tune, from renditions by Michael McDonald, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson, to an instrumental version by trumpet-player Chris Botti and one by a New York blues guitarist named Popa Chubby (born Ted Horowitz).

Unfortunately, unlike Cohen himself, the original “Hallelujah” has not aged well. As with much pop music from the 1980s, it’s marred by chintzy synths, plodding bass, and glossy, reverb-drenched production. Much of the song sounds like it’s been coated in gold laminate. What’s so powerful about the song, and what assured its cult status long before its recent popularity, are Cohen’s lyrics—their brilliant mix of Old Testament spirituality (“Hallelujah” is a Hebrew word meaning “praise God,” often used in liturgy) and real-world romantic desire. “Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord,” Cohen begins, before conflating God with a tone-deaf lover, “but you don’t really care for music, do ya?” Then Cohen weaves effortlessly through the stories of David’s seduction of Bathseba and Delilah’s humbling of Samson to find something sexual, almost kinky:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

It’s lines like these that have helped transform Cohen into one of the only true poets in popular music and something of a modern mystic—a prophet for a secular world.

Listen to “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen

The recording that started the whole cover frenzy of the last 15 to 20 years is a version by John Cale (co-founder of the Velvet Underground) that appeared on a 1991 Cohen tribute album, I’m Your Fan. In it, Cale combined the two opening verses of the 1984 original—crucially lopping off Cohen’s redemptive ending—with a slew of new verses that Cohen had added during a 1988 live performance. (Cohen claims to have penned 80 verses for “Hallelujah” over the course of more than two years.) Cohen’s newer, darker lyrics focused almost exclusively on the doomed relationship and sexual longing that lay hidden just under the surface of the original. When Cale combined them with Cohen’s riffs on David and Delilah, he created a more perfect union out of Cohen’s unnerving marriage of the divine and the damaged. No less crucially, Cale set Cohen’s lyrics over nothing but stark piano arpeggios—an arrangement that perfectly suited the song’s tale of human frailty. The modestly triumphant “Hallelujah” of 1984 had become a “cold” and “broken Hallelujah” in Cale’s hands.

Listen to “Hallelujah” by John Cale

It’s this take that inspired Jeff Buckley three years later to record the song—which he described as an homage to the “hallelujah of the orgasm”—for his debut album Grace. Buckley’s may be the canonical “Hallelujah,” and it’s also the best, for two reasons: 1) It pushes the intimacy and pathos in Cale’s version to its very limits without descending into soap opera. And 2) Buckley makes use of his four-octave vocal range and virtuosic guitar-playing without ever distracting us from the magic of Cohen’s words. The song’s extended introduction and bridge—courtesy of Buckley’s gorgeous Telecaster—were new and welcome additions to the song’s legacy.

The countless “Hallelujah”s that have emerged since fall into three basic categories: those that honor the Cale/Buckley legacy, those that don’t, and those that are just plain silly. In the first category, renditions by Rufus Wainwright, Damien Rice, and the Canadian singer Allison Crowe are all decent examples, though the most effective may be k.d. lang’s from her 2004 album Hymns of the 29th Parallel. Lang’s “Hallelujah” retains Cale’s verse structure (as do most successful versions of the song) as well as his stately piano and funereal tempo, while her velvety alto adds a touch of seduction to the gloom. By focusing on simple piano or guitar-based arrangements, these tunes get at the tragedy and loneliness in Cohen’s song, and behind his statement that, as he recently told Australia’s Sunday Age, “although we don’t often know what to do with it, love is the only redeeming possibility for human beings.”

Listen to “Hallelujah” by k.d. lang

That’s what the heretics who fail to honor Buckley’s legacy forget—they puff their chests out and belt “Hallelujah”s as if they were a celebration instead of a capitulation. Opera singer Katherine Jenkins and the Spanish-language group Il Divo both missed the point when they re-imagined “Hallelujah” as big, pompous arias. And at the risk of offending the more than 570,000 Brits that bought the single over the holidays, Alexandra Burke is most definitely guilty of similar trespasses. There is, of course, the haughty choir and vaulted string arrangements, but then Burke also murders Cale’s verse structure—cutting out half of Cohen’s lyrics, including his most potent mix of religious and sexual imagery:

And remember when I moved in you,
And the holy dove was moving too,
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah.

Of the silly variety, there are predictably many, including a version sung entirely in Welsh entitled “Haleliwia,” and a few parodies: “My Halloumia,” an homage to Cypriot cheese, and “Lamb Bhuna,” a lament for a misplaced Indian entree by British DJ Chris Moyles. And then there’s Bono and his unlistenable spoken-word rendition, released on the 1995 tribute album Tower of Song. Over a muffled drum machine and jazzy horns, Bono sings—or rather reads—Cohen’s lyrics as if it was beat-poetry night down at the Village Vanguard.

Listen to “Hallelujah” by Bono

It is to Cohen’s credit that his song can stand up to such abuse. “Hallelujah” is eternally open to interpretation—no musician can pin it down. While Cale and Buckley seem to have discovered the best combination of lyrics and arrangement to give voice to Cohen’s wine-soaked existential malaise, “Hallelujah” will remain an irresistable temptation for artists around the world”whether we like it or not.