Deep inside the Song: “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen (and Jeff Buckley, etc.)
Pause, for readers to roll their eyes. This song, after all, has been sung into absurdity. It’s been performed beautifully by great singers like kd lang and Jeff Buckley before her. But it’s also been paraded around by American Idol contestants and high school talent show strivers, who deliver Buckley’s version with absolutely no apparent grasp of the complexity of the song. Buckley’s version has become so pervasive, in fact, hipsters who don’t know to dig further think he wrote it. There’s good reason for this. He took a song whose writer — Leonard Cohen — performed it so drone-like it was nearly a meditation, and turned it into a dramatic, anthemic love song. (Cohen, meanwhile, has been known to call for people to stop singing his song.)
Cohen originally wrote nearly 80 verses for the song, and has performed several versions himself. While most people only know the verses comprising Buckley’s version, the song is considerably more complicated than what’s contained in the verses he chose (mostly invoking the biblical story of Samson and Delilah, told in the type of third person narration that feels like the narrator is trying to obtain objectivity about his own experience).
Maybe the first most artful, interesting thing about the song is that it sings about songwriting. The “baffled king” is composing a “hallelujah” in the form of a 4th – 5th progression, followed by a minor chord and a major lift. This is what the accompaniment does, but the vocals sing about this progression by moving one step at a time up a major scale. He’s singing about a predictable musical phrase by singing an even more predictable musical phrase, all under the guise of telling us a love story that is so wholly predictable, we know within the first three lines of the song that the girl is going to use him and drop him, break his heart, and he is going to lament in the most dramatic way possible.
Predictability. It’s a bitch, ain’t it. Especially when we don’t see it coming.
But, it’s not the manipulative, poetic melodism that seals the deal here. Buckley’s version is the go-to performance that everyone with half a voice tries to tackle because of the emotive musicality. There’s drama here, and sex, and power struggle in the lyrics. It’s a good story, but the way Buckley tackles the melody is what makes it more attractive to vocalists.
His recording begins with a deep breath, a sigh. Immediately, it’s all about the narrator. There is no empathy for the woman about whom he sings. It’s a lashing out — a “you just did this to me” reaction, punctuated by realizations that he was falling in love. But, there’s a sense that the emotion is so heavy, the heartache so intense, that he must start out with a deep breath and pause for more before continuing. Before he gets to his most bitter, heartwrenching line (“All I’ve ever learned from love is how to shoot somebody who outdrew you”), the whole song stops to breathe, as his guitar pushes out of the lush garden of sustained pedal tones, into a one-note-at-a-time stroll to the top of the fretboard. As high as his fingers can get, like peering off a cliff, then thinking better of the urge to leap, he turns around, toward the ruminant self-deprecation of the verse.
After that line, Buckley relies on his guitar to accelerate and crescendo, clearing space for his voice to roar out the song’s persistent revelations about love:
It’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.
The way he sings it sounds as though he’s unconvinced. There’s a tenuousness to the lines, a wishing one could hold onto the illusion that love is a grand, dramatic burst of light — an event, rather than a long, arduous journey.
But here, we must pause, to understand what this even means. “Hallelujah” is a word typically reserved for religious exaltation. In the Hebrew from whence it came, it’s two words, the equivalent of “praise god.” It can be used as a command (ie “you must praise god”) as much as a declaration of joy. That Cohen’s line talks of a “cold and broken hallelujah” indicates, I think, a need to appreciate the fleeting opportunity for this lustful affair, rather than to dwell on the heartache of the situation. This gratitude is inaccessible, however, so the poet must repeat the word over and over, like a mantra, until he believes.
The verses Buckley selected turn the protagonist into a king, his lover into a lying, using temptress. Love is an act, a moment, rather than something that persists through life, whether the lover likes it or not. Turning love into an occurence makes it easier to dramaticize, easier to mourn, easier to wish back. The transitory nature of this view floats better on the voice than does the understanding that it’s part of a bigger picture. The drama (Buckley) is more languid than the reality (Cohen).
Aside from missing out on some of Cohen’s most powerful verses, this is where Buckley’s performance veers most notably from Cohen’s. Buckley’s “hallelujahs” evolve both rhythmically and melodically. The ego enters them, whereas Cohen’s version reserves the “hallelujah” as the only place in the song where ego is missing — his “hallelujahs” are the only constant. On Cohen’s recording, a chorale takes over these syllables, singing them in the intrinsic rhythm of the word, on three notes — up then back down, like waves against a shore, over and over — emphasizing the “yah” (“god”) as though it were the period at the end of the sentence. Cohen simply sings along, occasionally outside the rhythm — vocally displaying his inability to lock step with the gratitude of praise. He’s not trying to convince himself this was a love to hold, as Buckley seems to be. Cohen’s song is a defiant one; Buckley’s is an attempt to concede powerlessness. This distinction is what makes the proliferation of Buckley’s version so maddening to me, considering we have Cohen’s.
You said I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, really, what’s it to you?
There’s a brave light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard:
the holy or the broken hallelujah
This verse turns the love affair from allegory to accusation. (Buckley’s version is all allegory.)
In other words, what distinguishes this song from every other pop song is that Cohen created the allegory, then stepped outside of it to share the lesson he learned. What often makes mainstream art so compelling is its capturing of a fleeting moment. Many pop songs are like photography. You can attach any ideas you want to them, but the fact that they’re incomplete statements is what tugs at our universal humanity and allows us to gather around them, together. If the artist followed through to the thought’s natural conclusion s/he might wind up alienating the audience, who may not learn the same thing from the same experience. But, Cohen went there. He developed 80 verses, following the story from beginning to end. He dared us to follow along the whole way, and we took the dare. So, “Hallelujah” effects us differently than other songs, because we accepted the challenge, whether we (and the so-many-singers who won’t stop performing it) knew it or not.