What’s with that song ‘Hallelujah’?

Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece has become the closest thing pop music has to a sacred text
Boston, Massachusetts
Musician Leonard Cohen takes the stage as he is honored at the 2012 Awards for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence awarded to both he and Chuck Berry at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Massachusetts February 26, 2012. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT POLITICS)

What’s with that song ‘Hallelujah’?

Leonard Cohen spent almost two years writing Hallelujah, blackening two notebooks with some 80 verses before finally settling on a few that pleased him. He once told a British journalist, “I remember being on the floor of the Royalton Hotel [in Manhattan], on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor saying ‘I can’t finish this song.’ ” He did, eventually, but the song wasn’t finished with him. Since Hallelujah’s first release on his 1984 album Various Positions, it has been recorded by over 100 artists, including Bob Dylan, Bono, Willie Nelson, k.d. lang, Rufus Wainright, and Jeff Buckley. It has graced soundtracks ranging from Shrek to The O.C. And last month, after Cohen had rallied from financial ruin to stage a triumphant world tour, his comeback was heralded with a Hallelujah chorus that went through the roof.

Producers of X-Factor (the U.K. version of American Idol) paid $1.8 million to use the song for their contest finale. And a gospel-fired version performed by the winner, 20-year-old Alexandra Burke, became the fastest-selling download in Internet history, rocketing to No. 1 on the U.K. top 40 chart. Then partisans of Buckley’s version joined the fray and pushed his recording into the No. 2 spot. Even Cohen’s original track found a new life, hitting No. 36.

The song has become pop music’s closest thing to a sacred text. “Hallelujah is a masterful meditation on love, sex, God and music,” says Daniel J. Levitin, professor of psychology at McGill University, and the author of the bestselling book The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. “Lyrically it does what only Leonard Cohen can do, and do so effectively—combine big, universal ancient and spiritual themes with the right-here and right-now.”

The lyrics weave a love story from a deft remix of the Old Testament. The singer slides from evoking divinity—“I’ve heard there was a secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord”—to laying a psalm on an indifferent dame—“you don’t really care for music do ya?” Then as he conjures a moonlit scene of David agape at Bathsheba “bathing on the roof,” they morph into Samson and Delilah: “She tied you to a kitchen chair / She broke your throne, and she cut your hair.” And before it’s over, the sexual and the sacred have merged in a virtual threesome with the Holy Spirit: “remember when I moved in you / the holy dove was moving too.”

Melodically, the song performs a similar balancing act. “The music is timeless and modern at the same time,” says Levitin. “It has elements of 17th-century harmony—big, classical themes—but also an almost ’50s retro ballad arpeggio, combined with modern harmonic moves.” Hallelujah is also a postmodern marvel, a song about music that explains its own melody—“the fourth, the fifth / the minor fall, the major lift.”

Among those who have tackled the song, John Cale prompted its first pop revival with a 1991 piano/vocal cover that was used in Shrek (2001). But to the confusion of fans, Rufus Wainwright sang the version on the Shrek soundtrack album. Then a new generation of fans discovered Buckley’s rendition on The O.C. soundtrack. Buckley, who recorded it in 1994, said the song was about “the hallelujah of the orgasm.” Backed by sparse guitar, and stretched to almost seven minutes, his yearning vocal took on angelic overtones after his death by drowning in 1997.

Partisans of rival versions have sent debate ringing from the Internet to academia. In an exhaustive treatise on Hallelujah, professor Allan Moore, a British musicologist at Surrey University, mixes erudite theory of “appogiatural rises” and “glottal stops” with snatches of Web chat, such as: “Wainwright deserves to be beaten with sticks.”

Despite the song’s delicacy, it can take all kinds of abuse. Its vaulted chorus makes it ideal for the vocal gymnastics of pop singers like X-Factor’s Alexandra Burke, whose bombastic approach appalls the purists. Among the powerhouse interpretions, k.d. lang’s version stands out. When she performed it live at Cohen’s induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006—stalking the stage in bare feet and building a cathedral of sound as Cohen watched from the front row—it was electrifying. But it was even more inspiring to see Cohen repatriate the ballad on tour at the age of 74. As he scaled its melodic heights with that ancient baritone, taking slingshot aim at a Goliath of a song, Hallelujah had never sounded so heroic.