From the The Times of London comes this commentary on the spiritual significance one of my favorite songs, Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen, via Ruth Gledhill’s blog. (There is a great article Alan Franks wrote about Cohen that first appeared in The Times Magazine (of London) in October 2001.)
Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah never set out to be a rock song, any more than its 74-year-old author set out to be a rock singer. But both have acquired that label by virtue of their sheer popularity and transcendence over the years.
It’s not as new as people think, having been released on a 1984 album. The title of that collection Various Positions, should alert the listener to Cohen’s trademark ambiguities. He is manifestly a man of faith, having spent several years in the Buddhist community of the remote Mount Baldy in California. But then he is just as publicly a man of the flesh and its weaknesses, with all those half-sung, half-groaned reports from the front line of love-making.
Still, if the agonies and ecstasies of such human duality were good enough for a seventeenth century dean of St. Pauls, John Donne, they will do very nicely for contemporary troubadours.
It is tempting to say that Hallelujah has become as successful as it has because it articulates some spiritual yearning without being too specific. It won’t embarrass the secular singer or listener by alligning them with an uncool movement. It does what the title prepares you for – repeats the word, which is taken from the Hebrew for Praise The Lord, again and again.
But praise Him/Her/It for what? Well, nothing and everything. Cohen is a poet as well as a rock singer, remember, and in both these guises he has the absolute right, some would say duty, not to give his meaning away cheaply.
He boiled down some eighty possible verses into its present form of five-maximum; first we’ve got David playing a secret chord, then a picture of domestic surrender, then a typical piece of Cohenite bathos with “I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch / love is not a victory march / it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”
Then this fabulous fusion of his sacred and profane modes: “..remember when I moved in you / the holy dove was moving too / And every breath we drew was Hallelujah.” Ridiculous to ask what it’s about because it doesn’t matter, and it will strike different chords in different people. Literally so; part of its allure for musicians has to be its early deconstruction of the very chord sequence on which its melody is rising: “It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor Fall, the major lift…”
No wonder so many have had a crack at it, from Jeff Buckley to Katherine Jenkins.
All seem to have a deeply personal connection with it, and a couple even pay it the risky compliment of tampering: Rufus Wainwright sings holy dark instead of holy dove, and Alison Crowe sings holy ghost.
Around the time he wrote it, one of his few peers, also Jewish, said Cohen seemed to have taken to writing hymns. Perhaps it took one to know one, for the observation was Bob Dylan’s. Nearly a quarter of a century on it has evolved into that contradictory hybrid of secular hymn.
This puts it in a tradition that runs, at random, from Blake/Parry’s Jerusalem, through Sir Arthur Sullivan’s The Lost Chord, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s You’ll Never Walk Alone to The Beatles’ Let It Be, not to mention a couple by Dylan himself. Numinous is the overworked word that describes their effect. Wherever they came from, they far outran their commercial dreams, and probably their artistic ones as well. Cohen doesn’t do happy endings, but what a good late twist that this number should have restored the pension fund that was pilfered by an accountant.