“A venerated creator. An adored, tragic interpreter. An uncomplicated, memorable melody. Ambiguous, evocative words. Faith and uncertainty. Pain and pleasure.”
Today, “Hallelujah” is one of the most-performed rock songs in history. It has become a staple of movies and television shows as diverse as Shrek and The West Wing, of tribute videos and telethons. It has been covered by hundreds of artists, including Bob Dylan, U2, Justin Timberlake, and k.d. lang, and it is played every year at countless events—both sacred and secular—around the world.
Yet when music legend Leonard Cohen first wrote and recorded “Hallelujah,” it was for an album rejected by his longtime record label. Ten years later, charismatic newcomer Jeff Buckley reimagined the song for his much-anticipated debut album, Grace. Three years after that, Buckley would be dead, his album largely unknown, and “Hallelujah” still unreleased as a single. After two such commercially disappointing outings, how did one obscure song become an international anthem for human triumph and tragedy, a song each successive generation seems to feel they have discovered and claimed as uniquely their own?
Through in-depth interviews with its interpreters and the key figures who were actually there for its original recordings, acclaimed music journalist Alan Light follows the improbable journey of “Hallelujah” straight to the heart of popular culture. The Holy or the Broken gives insight into how great songs come to be, how they come to be listened to, and how they can be forever reinterpreted.
Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" has been performed and recorded by hundreds of artists from U2, Justine Timberlake, and Celine Dion to Renee Fleming and Willie Nelson, and Rolling Stone named it one of the 500 greatest songs of all time. Ironically, his record company refused to release Cohen's 1984 album, Various Positions, that included the song, and many Cohen fans don't consider "Hallelujah" to be among his best songs. Rock journalist Light, who co-wrote Gregg Allman's memoir, My Cross to Bear, carefully and methodically traces the evolution of the song from obscurity to classic anthem. In 1991, John Cale of the Velvet Underground recorded a stripped-down version of "Hallelujah," a soaring meditation on life, faith, and love, on his album I'm Your Fan, that Cohen himself began playing in his live performances, and in 1994, Jeff Buckley recorded what has become the best known version of the song on his album, Grace. Buckley delivered his nearly seven-minute version as a "hallelujah to the orgasm... an ode to life and love, swooning with emotion," while Cohen and Cale sang the song as an ode to experience and wisdom. Buckley's cover version animated the song so much that many fans attributed "Hallelujah" to Buckley instead of Cohen. Pop music fans will already be familiar with many of these stories. Even so, Light's charming ode to a pop music phenomenon makes a nice companion to Sylvie Simmons's outstanding and definitive biography of Leonard Cohen, I'm Your Man.