For purposes of this weekly feature, let’s make the balance of September “Leonard Cohen Month”. Cohen was born in September 1934, and I feel like focusing on him a bit and waiting twelve years for his centennial doesn’t seem all that wise.
Let’s jump right in with his most famous song, “Hallelujah”. This is one of those songs that has become more famous in the hands of others than it ever did in the hands of its original artist, the man who wrote it and sang it and recorded it. Cohen wrote and recorded “Hallelujah” for a 1984 album, and it attracted attention from other artists, starting with Bob Dylan and moving on from there. My first encounter with the song came, as it did for many, via its use in the movie Shrek. “Hallelujah” would then come up all over the place. It was used in an episode of The West Wing, an episode of Scrubs, and perhaps most famously in recent years, in the cold open of the first episode of Saturday Night Live after the 2016 election. (On the subject of that one, SNL alum and generally much-more-unfunny-than-he-thinks actor Rob Schneider has been in the news of late for his notion that this moment “killed” SNL. I won’t dwell on that, other than to let Roger Ebert’s review of Schneider’s best-known film stand as the definitive rebuke.)
“Hallelujah” has become such a touchstone song that there’s actually a book out there about its composition and rise to prominence. (I have not read the book, having only learned it exists as I write this.) I did, however, read this article from The Atlantic about the song.
The article asks an interesting question about the song itself: What is it about “Hallelujah” that makes it so irresistible to singers? Its use across pop culture is one thing, but why is this song covered so much?
In June 1984, at New York’s Quadrasonic Sound studios, Leonard Cohen laid down a song he’d spent years writing. “Hallelujah” would eventually join the pantheon of contemporary popular music; at the time, though, the Canadian singer-songwriter may as well have dropped it off the end of a pier. That’s because it was included on Various Positions, Cohen’s seventh studio album for Columbia, which the head of the music division, Walter Yetnikoff, chose not to release in the U.S. “Leonard, we know you’re great,” he said. “But we don’t know if you’re any good.” Or as cartoonish execs say in the movies: I don’t hear a single.
The album, which Columbia didn’t put out in the U.S. until 1990, features a handful of Cohen’s greatest songs. It opens with the sardonically gorgeous “Dance Me to the End of Love” and fades out on “If It Be Your Will,” which Cohen described as “an old prayer” that he was moved to rewrite. And sitting in the middle of that albatross of an album—side two, track one—is one of the most frequently performed and recorded pop songs of the past half century.
As any American Idol watcher or bar-karaoke singer knows, “Hallelujah” begins, “Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord,” and for a time the universe seemed determined to keep all of the song’s chords a secret. The new film Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song—inspired by a 2012 book by Alan Light—documents the record’s long, strange trip to ubiquity. It’s a tale about the vagaries of recording history and the foolishness of industry suits, but it’s also about rediscovery and inspiration and reinvention. “Hallelujah” has become inescapable in large part because it doesn’t narrowly belong to anyone; it belongs to us all.
Read the whole thing; it’s a good article, even if the author, Kevin Dettmar, is curiously dismissive of k.d. lang’s cover of the song, which is one of my favorites.
In considering the question of “Hallelujah”, it has clearly reached the point where it’s covered a lot because it’s covered a lot. Everybody knows it, so everybody feels they need to sing it. In this way it’s not unlike Etta James’s “At Last”, a song that you’ll hear probably a dozen times every year in the “Audition” phase of American Idol. But thinking about the ubiquity of “At Last” on the talent show scene gives a key to the answer of “Hallelujah”‘s appeal. “At Last” is a perfect vehicle for a singer to show off their instrument, isn’t it? It starts immediately with that first sultry syllable and then a leap into the singer’s upper register, from where the singer (it is to be hoped) fills the room with the soaring tones of their instrument. “At Last” is a vocal showpiece. “Hallelujah” is not.
“Hallelujah”, for all its wonders and gifts, is not a demanding song for the singer. Not technically, anyway. It doesn’t cover much range, and all of its rises and falls are stepwise, so there are no big leaps like the one at the beginning of “At Last” (or that notorious leap in “The Star Spangled Banner” that has all by itself convinced many singers that our national anthem should be changed). The melody repeats, and repeats, and repeats. The chorus is just the word “hallelujah”, sung melismatically four times. There is no ‘bridge’ section to “Hallelujah”.
“Hallelujah” is, though, an interpretational challenge, a musical challenge, of the highest order. If you come to “Hallelujah” and you want to do it justice, you’d better have done your homework. Cohen’s lyrics are full of Biblical allusion, emotional depth, and outright eroticism. (Some singers leave out those verses, and my reaction to such is, “You weenies.”) Everybody knows these couple of verses:
Now I’ve heard there was a secret chordThat David played, and it pleased the Lord But you dont really care for music, do you? It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth The minor falls, the major lifts The baffled king composing HallelujahHallelujah, HallelujahHallelujah, HallelujahYour faith was strong but you needed proofYou saw her bathing on the roof Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you She tied you to a kitchen chair She broke your throne, and she cut your hair And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
But how about this verse? What do you do with this?
There was a time you let me knowWhat’s really going on below But now you never show it to me, do you? And I remember when I moved in you And the holy dove she was moving too And every single breath we drew was Hallelujah
And if you do include those, how do you make them an organic part of the whole song? Because now Cohen isn’t talking vaguely about King David’s minor fall or major lift, and he’s not alluding obliquely to Samson. He’s talking to a lover where the flame isn’t there anymore. And if you’re the singer, you have to make this verse a part of the same song as the first two verses, the ones everybody knows. (By the way, the latter verses, which are almost accusatory of failed love, really make it seem all the more odd that in recent years “Hallelujah” has actually been getting airplay in December as a Christmas song.)
I think singers gravitate toward “Hallelujah” precisely because it is such a profound challenge to sing convincingly. There’s nowhere to hide; you can either interpret it, or you can’t. Singers come to “Hallelujah” to take their measure, much as a conductor comes to Beethoven’s Seventh or Mahler’s Ninth.
And now, finally, here is Mr. Cohen.