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Book Reviews

Alan Light: The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah"

By Published: April 27, 2013
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.Lang—whose 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.


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