Alan Light: The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah"
For ages musicologists, psychologists, producers and people alike have tried to decipher or unravel the secret of what makes certain songs so likeable and popular, even to give them a scientific explanation. What they have found out so far, from a scientific point of view, is that each musical hit is reliant on mathematics, science, engineering and technology, the physics and the frequencies of sound that determine pitch and harmony and various other things. While some things can be defined scientifically, that will never explain the road that an obscure song from a rejected album written by a certain songwriter named Leonard Cohen has traversed to become one of the most beloved and most covered songs in the history of recorded music.
From the moment they are published, songs take on a life of their own. Some songs take the well-known and well-trodden road of a brief life on the charts and a longer life on the shelves, soon becoming as missed as last year's snow. But there are songs that just dive into the public conscience, with a popularity that never seems to wane. Some of those songs may never have topped the charts, but they have that alluring quality that has made them eternal. Sometimes there is no other formula for a timeless beauty but the song's own reflection of life with which people easily feel and identify.
In his brilliant book, The Holy or the Broken, renowned author and former editor-in-chief of Spin Magazine Alan Light traces the road that the song "Hallelujah" has traveled, from its difficult birth and initial rejection to becoming one of the most popular songs of the last 15 years. This beautiful song has been a common denominator in the careers of so many musiciansartists who have felt spellbound by it for different reasons and a song that, through them, has touched and enriched the lives of so many others. The storyline, as presented chronologically by the author, is worthy of a feature film and not just a book.
Thirty years, hundreds of covers, TV and film appearances and one book later, "Hallelujah" seems to be a song for every occasion. While Cohen's enigmatic lyrics are full of religious imagery, invoking the Biblical story of King David (the author of the Psalms) and Bathsheba, the woman whose beauty overthrew him, this was a very secular song when he wrote it. The narrative's central figure offers his "sacred chord" to a lover whose indifference to the protagonist's art is expressed in the line "But you don't really care for music, do ya?" The woman defiles and seduces David and, when all goes wrong as consequence, he makes no difference between the "holy or the broken Hallelujah."
"Hallelujah"is a ballad of love and sex, the divine and the mortal, desire and rejection. It reeks of failure and last chances, and it has that dichotomy of pleasure and emotional pain. The themes of transcendence through fiery trials have constantly played strong roles in Cohen's lyrics. Many bootlegs from the '80s show Cohen introducing the song as the "Broken Hallelujah." The album that this song was written for, Various Positions (1984) was initially rejected by Columbia Records in the United States and released by Passport Records (returning to Columbia when the label issued Cohen's discography on CD in 1990), even though in retrospective it has some of the best and beloved songs Cohen has ever written. It is interesting to note that one of the first peopleif not the firstto champion this song was the poet of poets, Bob Dylan. Being one of the first to recognize that the song had something special, he sang it live several times. After that, the song lived in relative obscurity until it was accidently discovered by the late singer Jeff Buckley.
Buckley's version, recorded for his debut, Grace (Columbia, 1994), is simultaneously fragile, lustful, emotional, and sexy, and in the aftermath of his premature death it also feels heartbroken and sad, a reminder of the talent that was lost. Buckley, once described it as an homage to "the hallelujah of the orgasm." But the version that he sang was actually not Cohen's but that of the singer John Cale (of Velvet Underground fame).
As faith would have it, by pure accident, Buckley had been searching through his friend's record collection and he stumbled across the version that he recorded for a Leonard Cohen tribute compilation, I'm Your Fan (Atlantic, 1991):
When Cale asked Cohen to fax him the lyrics, he was sent 15 pages of lyrics that he chose from and this was the first time the alternate lyrics of the song were heard, apart from at live venues. What Cale gave more emphasis on, in this brilliant and underrated cover, was the sorrow and longing expressed for the passing of a relationship. Truth be known, his is the mother for most later takes on this song.
But Buckley's unmatched version and his premature death is what really resurrected "Hallelujah" and gave it afterlife. Since then, the song has been covered by hundreds of well-known artists, ranging from singers like Bono, Bon Jovi, Rufus Wainwright, Willie Nelson and K.D.Langwhose version is Cohen's favorite:
to an army of American Idol- like shows where producers have tried to cash in by colonizing the credibility of artists such as Cohen. The mixed results demonstrated that it is not just enough to sing a great song, but to hone in on its previously underappreciated details as only a handful of artists have done. Apart from that, "Hallelujah" became inescapable from the small screen and was featured in many TV dramas and films, most notably Shrek (2001) and the dark satire Lord of War (2005).
Even outside of the world of entertainment, it has become part of religious ceremonies. Over the years it has become the soundtrack for times of tribulation and upheaval, when it seems like there is nothing that can lift the shadow weighing on peoples' souls. Its gospel overtones might explain why it has been used in times of personal misfortune or major upheaval, as a song that is a triumph of the spirit against all odds. Contrary to blues music, which is often pessimistic when all is going down the tubes, gospel music is always optimistic and its message is that "everything will be alright." Gospel music is always about the possibility of transcendence, of trusting that things will be better even when one doesn't control one's own fate.
The thing about a great song is that it leaves part of itself open, so the listener hears what he or she wants to hear. Judging by the artists who wrote it, shaped it and covered it, it can be a holy or a broken Hallelujah, even eventually a lustful one. The song itself, with its gospel-like style, falls into a small category or songs of similar character where the divine and secular mix together. Similar songs in this category would include works such as "Heroes" by singer David Bowie, Dylan's "I Shall be Released" and Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Trouble Water."
It's difficult to define exactly how the song managed to take off in popular culture the way it has over the past decade. Holy or the Broken doesn't so much attempt to unravel the secret of "Hallelujah's" popularity as it does map the lives of the people it has enriched in the first place. The book's allure comes from its revealing of the lives of those people and the circumstances that have taken this song to where it is now. Despite becoming overused and abused, the song still retains the considerable emotional power that has made it a timeless classic which transcends genres and generations. All of this indicates that it has turned into something that is impossible in this digital era: a folk song.
A folk song is public property, and musicians take on folk songs as they feel they should, many unaware of the author. Apparently, songs belong to those who can sing them better. When Cohen was asked, in an interview, to what he attributes the song's success, he replied "it has a good chorus," and he couldn't be more right. Plain and simple.