A new book traces the the song's strange rise to pop-cultural ubiquity.
Pop standards don't really get written anymore. Most of the best-known standards were composed before the arrival of rock and roll; perhaps something about the new brand of mass-marketed, Ed Sullivan-fueled stardom just didn't quite jive with the generous old-world tradition of passing songs around the circuit, offering to share.
So when an obscure Leonard Cohen song from 1984 was resurrected in the '90s, then repurposed and reinvented by other artists so many times it became a latter-day secular hymn—well, that was kind of like a pop-music unicorn sighting.
Alan Light's new book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah" traces the bizarre cultural history of that very unicorn: "Hallelujah," a song that lay dormant in Cohen's vast repertoire for more than a decade before its popularity surged up again with a posthumous Jeff Buckley single. "Hallelujah" has metamorphosed over the years from a cheesy, reverb-heavy B-side oddity on an album Cohen's label rejected to a mystical, soul-stirring pop canticle that's played today at just as many weddings as funerals. Light reverentially details every stage in the evolution—and along the way, he reveals the compelling stories behind some of its most iconic interpretations.
Leonard Cohen's original appeared in 1984 as the first track on the second side of his album Various Positions. Though he'd composed some 80 verses over the course of five years or so, according to Light, he whittled the song down to four for the final studio recording.
Cohen has always been ambiguous about what his "Hallelujah," with its sexual scenery and its religious symbolism, truly "meant." "This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled," Cohen has said. "But there are moments when we can ... reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that's what I mean by 'Hallelujah.'"
According to producer John Lissauer, the dramatic, synth-heavy original recording of "Hallelujah" was "gonna be the breakthrough" on Various Positions. "'Hallelujah' just jumped out at you," Lissauer told Light. But when it reached Walter Yetnikoff, the president of CBS Records, Yetnikoff was puzzled: "He said, 'What is this? This isn't pop music. We're not releasing it. This is a disaster.'"
Thus, "Hallelujah" wasn't even heard in the United States until Various Positions was released by another label. And even then, it failed to make an impression on the radio or the charts, where 50-year-old Cohen was competing against the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna.
Jeff Buckley, a hungry young singer-songwriter from California, first heard "Hallelujah" on a Leonard Cohen tribute album he discovered in a friend's home while cat-sitting in Brooklyn in 1992. He began performing the song regularly in New York's East Village clubs, and called it "a hallelujah to the orgasm ... an ode to life and love."
Buckley's close friend Glen Hansard—who went on to win an Oscar in 2007 for his song "Falling Slowly," from Once—had moved to New York with him, and described Buckley's rendition of "Hallelujah" as a loving critique of Cohen's somewhat stoic original: "He gave us the version we hoped Leonard would emote, and he wasn't afraid to sing it with absolute reverence. Jeff sang it back to Leonard as a love song to what he achieved, and in doing so, Jeff made it his own."
Buckley's rendition made it onto his only full-length album, 1994's Grace. The song and the album went largely unnoticed until 1997—when both took on a new, haunting significance after Jeff Buckley drowned in the Wolf River in Tennessee.
For a 1995 Leonard Cohen tribute collection called Tower of Song, U2's lead singer Bono took advantage of the opportunity to record one of his favorite then-underappreciated Cohen compositions. The U2 frontman went a counterintuitive direction with it, enlisting the help of a Scottish remixer named Howie B. to produce a thumping trip-hop arrangement.
"While there might seem to be no singer as well equipped to handle the song's balance of the earthly and the spiritual," Light writes, "Bono's 'Hallelujah' is, unfortunately, just awful."
Bono, in recent years, has come to agree. When Light talked to him for the book, Bono's first words were, "I wasn't sure why I agreed to do this interview, but then I remembered that I needed to apologize to the world." He continued: "The lyric explains it best. There's the holy and the broken hallelujah, and mine was definitely the broken one. ... It was a snapshot, a Polaroid, of a place I was in, but you really shouldn't go putting these things out when they're done in such a private way. Intimacy was the currency of the occasion."
There's a scene in 2001's Shrek, just after Shrek and Princess Fiona have angrily parted ways, where the titular ogre pines for the princess just as she's joylessly preparing herself for a wedding to a tiny prince she doesn't love. It's a poignant moment in an otherwise raucously funny film, and Shrek's musical directors had been testing out sad song after sad song before they stumbled across "Hallelujah" on the soundtrack to Basquiat.