How Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' Became Everybody's 'Hallelujah'

A new book traces the the song's strange rise to pop-cultural ubiquity.

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Columbia/Passport; DreamWorks; ITV

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.

The two musical directors tried the Leonard Cohen version and the Jeff Buckley version over the scene, but ultimately settled for a rendition by Welsh singer John Cale. "The song came at a moment of emotional irony, taking something that's a celebration and playing it against itself," codirector Andrew Adamson says. The execs, to their surprise, loved it: "I expected the studio would push me to do something more popular, which they often do, but the emotion really outweighed the expectation."

For label-loyalty reasons, the soundtrack to Shrek included not the John Cale version, but a straightforward piano-accompanied version by Canadian musician Rufus Wainwright, modeled after Cale's.

"Wainwright laughed as he recounted how his own jealousy had prevented him from paying much attention to Buckley in the '90s," Light writes. But after Buckley's death, Wainwright recalls, "I was alone and probably on something. I put his version of the song on, and it was this kind of cosmic communion. It kind of hit me how great he was, and how fabulous the song is, and how foolish I had been for being so petty."

It was on the strength of Wainwright's and Cale's renditions that "Hallelujah" truly became a phenomenon—six-year-old kids, as Adamson puts it, were suddenly singing "Hallelujah," and adults came to know it as the song from Shrek.

In the following years, "Hallelujah" found explosive popularity on television and in movies. Imogen Heap's rendition, recorded for the third-season finale of The O.C. in 2006, became part of O.C. lore as the song that played over Marissa's death. But it almost didn't happen at all.

Heap initially felt there was too much pressure in performing what was fast becoming such a famous and beloved song. "I had actually just sent an e-mail to the show saying I was sorry, but I wouldn't be able to give this the time it requires," Heap recalls in Holy or the Broken. "I was in the shower and feeling a bit sad about it, and I started singing it and thought, 'Why don't I just do it this way—do it a cappella, with no music or production, as if I were singing in the shower?' So I got out and I sent them another e-mail back."

Regina Spektor was one of the first high-profile artists to repurpose "Hallelujah" for a religious setting. In 2005, the 25-year-old Spektor performed a simple rendition with piano and cello at a concert for the Jewish Heritage Festival.

"Cohen writes a lot with biblical symbolism at the forefront of his mind," she told Light. "Having gone to yeshiva and studied those stories, I know that all the biblical things are so unique lyrically, and he uses them so freely, but you don't have to know the stories to appreciate the song."

The "contemplative" rendition by k.d. lang, Cohen's fellow Canadian, ranks among Cohen's favorites. According to Light:

[Cohen's] companion/collaborator Anjani Thomas said that after hearing lang perform 'Hallelujah' at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006, "We looked at each other and said, 'Well, I think we can lay that song to rest now! It's really been done to its ultimate, blissful state of perfection."

Alexandra Burke, a 2008 finalist on Britain's The X Factor, might win the prize for the most controversial rendition of the Cohen classic. Known for her soul power more than her subtlety, she was initially dismayed at the news that she'd been assigned the song for the final competition.

"I thought, 'Cor, I've lost already,'" Burke told Light. Burke then called her mom, who advised her to listen to the song and then call back. "I grew up listening to Motown and soul records, and I realized there were all these different versions of 'Hallelujah,' but there wasn't a soulful one. ... I called my mum back and told her I was going to Whitney-fy it, really make it soulful, and she burst into tears on the phone."

Backlash, of course, ensued. But with the release of "Hallelujah" as a single, Burke became the first British female solo artist to sell a million copies.

In 2010, as Light puts it, "the 'Hallelujah' brand was thriving." So when MTV produced a "Hope for Haiti Now" benefit concert for victims of a January earthquake, Justin Timberlake and his friend and collaborator Matt Morris knew it could be the perfect song for the occasion—with a few small tweaks.

Timberlake altered some of the chord constructions to create a sound that was more uplifting than melancholy and deleted some of Cohen's original sexual imagery. "'Remember when I moved in you,' that's just way too intimate for something like this," Timberlake told Light. "But 'maybe there's a God above,' that seemed universally appropriate for what was happening."

Critics were caught off-guard by the poignancy in Timberlake's rendition. "It was more ragged and more powerful than anything you might expect from the former NSync-er," Light writes. "It was the broken hallelujah in full force."