The Holy or the Broken, by Alan Light

The other day, I was chopping potatoes in the kitchen and singing quietly to myself. (I always seem to sing quietly when indoors; I have an ingrained terror of disturbing the neighbours.) The Chaos came into the kitchen. “What are you singing?” he asked. I was mildly surprised that he didn’t recognize it. “It’s Hallelujah,” I said. He looked blank. “You know, Leonard Cohen wrote it? Later popularised by Jeff Buckley?”

He shook his head. “I’m not sure I like it. It sounds like it ought to be a folk tune but isn’t.” He hummed a few bars in a satirically wishy-washy manner. “It’s probably the way I’m singing it,” I said, embarrassed–I had, indeed, been singing it in a low, breathy, absentminded sort of way (bad technique!) “No no,” he said, “I think it’s just the song. It can’t make up its mind.”

That, in a nutshell, is the glory of Hallelujah. It cannot make up its mind. It’s about sex; it’s about God; it’s about longing; it’s about defeat; it’s about love; it’s about how love isn’t always enough. Justin Timberlake, that mighty and perspicacious critic, once said of it that Leonard Cohen never tells you what to feel. He gives you a branching road, and you choose.

For me, also, it’s a personal song, one that means something not merely by virtue of its words and notes but also through the memories I associate with it. It’s a song I used to sing with my friend JonBoy, from home. Our friend Red loves it (she gave me this book.) Once they and two other friends came to stay at my house for a few days just before Christmas. We spent one night doing shots, running outside into freezing air to look at the lunar eclipse—and singing Hallelujah. Later, the Duchess and I worked out some harmonies and used to sing it in our kitchen (again!) at 52 Cowley Road. Heard in this context, it doesn’t just evoke God and sex, but deep friendship, too.

American music journalist Alan Light has written The Holy or the Broken, a history of the song–both its composition and its place in cultural history. Cohen’s writing process for Hallelujah is the sort of thing that ought to be apocryphal and yet is true: it took him fifteen years to settle on the version he finally recorded, during which time he wrote around eighty verses. On the Various Positions record, the track has four. When Jeff Buckley recorded it, he did five, of which only two were also on Cohen’s recording. John Cale, of the Velvet Underground, did the most high-profile pre-Buckley cover, also using those five verses. The words you choose to put in Hallelujah affect the main focus of the song, of course; Cohen’s version generally comes across as spiritual as well as sexual, while Light refers to Buckley’s as being the product of “a sullen, lustful adolescent”. Well, maybe. But it’s also, I think, one of the best performances ever recorded, not just of Hallelujah but of anything. It is beautiful just to hear him exhale at the beginning of the track, and his sustained high note near the end is pure, simmering, impossible, careless, contained power.

I’m not really reviewing the book, am I? Sorry. Light’s good at writing about music. He describes how the song functioned on television shows, in films, and, most interestingly, as a sort of secular American national anthem post-9/11. It became ubiquitous on shows like the X Factor and American Idol, which is both infuriating (Susan Boyle’s rendition is, justly, deemed “atrocious”) and indicative of how widely this song applies, how many people it can mean something to. Light spends perhaps a little too much time quoting–such that it can be difficult to get a feel for his own prose style–but it’s smart quotation, lucid and relevant, and it comes from an impressive body of interview transcripts. The impression that you come away with is that no one entirely understands of what this song’s magic consists. There is the relative simplicity of the chord structure, the fact that singers have historically picked and chosen verses at will (therefore making it infinitely adaptable) and the fact that the lyrics embody the melding of the sacred and the profane, intertwined in ways that many songs attempt and fail at. Hallelujah can be almost all things to almost all people; it’s like Hamlet’s speech, although less precisely about something.

Last night, I made The Chaos listen to Buckley’s rendition twice. He still didn’t like it. He really didn’t like it. He thought its attempt to blend biblical and sexual imagery “hamfisted” and its melody “deeply uncompelling”. It’s just possible, I suppose, that he has a point. But the things he singled out are the very qualities that lend Hallelujah its peculiar majesty:

Unlike the breathtaking precision of some of Cohen’s songs, the lyrics to “Hallelujah” are confusing, slightly out of focus. Perspective shifts between verses. Images from different stories are crosscut, adding up to a mood more than a single coherent narrative. The effect is that…it can be as “religious” a song as you want it to be…An interpretation, by listeners or another artist, can permanently alter the world’s impression of a song…This inherent ambiguity is only heightened for a song like “Hallelujah”.

And as for the melody being simplistic, well, it is. But uncompelling? No. Just deeply, deeply versatile. As Light notes, it’s easy to sing; Cohen’s notoriously gravelly and cumbersome voice can handle it, but it’s open enough to allow for a lusher interpretation: “The song is built on a simple, gentle ascending and descending figure…There’s plenty of room for more gifted singers (Renee Fleming) to explore, but nothing to intimidate a less conventional vocalist (Willie Nelson).” He quotes uke player Jake Shimabukuro, who’s done a cover of the song:

“You can get the same satisfaction singing it alone in your living room as you can onstage in front of an audience… There’s a lot of space for contemplation, a lot of space for whoever wants to be a part of the song. And that’s a very rare thing. A song like ‘Hallelujah’ takes you off the grid.”

Self-aware, perhaps it isn’t. Imperfect? God, yes. But what this song does is to make manifest in the world that thing which we do when we can’t make up our minds either; it mourns, it rejoices, and it surrenders. It throws up its hands and holds out its arms.

Fuck it. Let it go.

Hallelujah.

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9 thoughts on “The Holy or the Broken, by Alan Light

  1. I don’t know if I could manage to read a whole book on one song like this (well done you), but, as songs go, it is one of the most fascinating in its development and myriad of interpretations. I tend to prefer John Cale’s version over Jeff Buckley’s. I do adore Cohen – and his wonderful poetic lyrics, and would argue that although you can pick your verses, each one is precise in itself. Look on Youtube though and you’ll find so many ghastly overdone covers – the best are always the simplest as I’m sure you’ll agree.

    • Yes, definitely. Overproduction is ruinous! It’s partly why Susan Boyle’s version is so awful, and even Alexandra Burke’s (from the X Factor) seemed excessive to me. But on the other hand, the stripped-down covers need a really strong voice and interpretation in order to not sound wishy-washy and flat! So maybe not as easy a song to sing as people think…

      • Agree re Subo and Burke totally. There’s one with k.d.lang (whom I’d normally love doing her thang), but she overegged the vocals. Trying to remember whether I liked Rufus Wainwright’s version now – you’ve got my going on this one. Going to listen to something else by Leonard Cohen now instead.

  2. Hmm. I’m totally with Lennie – what you say : Leonard Cohen never tells you what to feel. He gives you a branching road, and you choose. There’s a kind of over-emotionalised sentimentality, in my mind, in most other versions. Cohen himself has no petulance, no ‘look at how much I’m throbbing with the feeling of this’ . His restraint is something I find much more moving than the over-emoters with voice beautiful! Give me broken, gritty voiced Lenny, every time

  3. Such a good post!

    I remember I thought Cohen copied Buckley for ages, his really is my version – I love it so much. I find Buckley really raw. Whereas Cohen, who is by no means rehearsed, has a more rhythmic approach – everything is in its place.

    • I have to say I think Cohen’s backing vocals are slightly overproduced (!), but I agree that the rhythm helps tie the song together a bit more than Buckley’s cover, which can seem rather self-indulgent if viewed with a critical eye…

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