The Life of a Song: ‘Hallelujah’

How Leonard Cohen’s track became one of music’s most widely covered songs
Leonard Cohen in New York in the mid-1980s © Getty

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It’s perhaps the most famous song written by Leonard Cohen, who died this week aged 82. And yet “Hallelujah” almost didn’t get released; and when it was, it passed almost unnoticed.

In the early 1980s Cohen was going through a fallow period, having not released an album since 1979’s Recent Songs. He was spending much of his time with his children in the south of France, but eventually a collection of songs came together. In the studio, Cohen took a new approach, with synthesiser-heavy arrangements, and a voice made deeper by “50,000 cigarettes and several swimming pools of whiskey”. Among the songs on the album was “Hallelujah”, an epic, hymnal composition with biblical allusions (David, Bathsheba and Samson are referenced). Cohen later said the song took him two years to write: “I remember being on the floor, on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, ‘I can’t finish this song.’”

When Cohen took the album to his record company, Columbia, the suits were not impressed, judging that the album was not good enough to merit release in the US. So in 1984 Cohen released it through the independent label, Passport. It met with little acclaim. But Cohen included “Hallelujah” in his live shows as he toured the world in the 1980s. His draft version of the song had around 80 verses, and many of them cropped up in his shows as he shuffled the pack. A 1994 live album features a version recorded in 1988 that is darker than the original, including lines such as these:

Yeah I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch,

But listen love, love is not some kind of victory march,

No it’s a cold and it’s a very broken Hallelujah.

The song was gaining traction, but it was properly popularised by John Cale, when his elegant piano-accompanied version was included in a 1991 Cohen tribute album, I’m Your Fan. Shorn of the clunky accoutrements of Cohen’s version, the song was allowed to shine.

After that, “Hallelujah” went viral. First to pick up the baton was Jeff Buckley in 1994, whose exquisitely pure tenor voice, recorded with a churchy echo, seemed ideally suited to the song’s religious themes.

Since then, “Hallelujah” has become one of the most covered songs ever, up there with “Yesterday” and “My Way”. The hundreds of versions have tended to follow one of two templates: either stripped down and simple — Rufus Wainwright, accompanied, like Cale, only by a piano — or big and histrionic, like Cohen’s fellow Canadian KD Lang, whose swooping, soaring rendition became a staple of her live shows; she also adopted Buckley’s trick of going up an octave in the chorus.

Inevitably, “Hallelujah” was picked up by the reality-show juggernaut, with Britain’s X Factor winner Alexandra Burke going hell-for-leather in a version that reached the coveted Christmas number one spot in the charts in 2008. Families up and down the country were doubtless split along generational lines as youngsters went mad for Burke’s version while their elders and betters sought refuge in the calm beauty of Buckley, Wainwright and Cale. (Cale’s version also popped up in the Shrek movie, although the soundtrack album featured Wainwright’s rendition.)

Other versions of note include a gorgeous Yiddish version, with loosely — and creatively — translated lyrics, by Berlin-based singer-songwriter Daniel Kahn; and the English singer Kathryn Williams, who brings purity and elegance to the song. Bob Dylan, who was among the first to see Cohen’s lyric to the song when they met in Paris in 1984, has covered it many times.

Cohen himself revisited the song on the world tour that he embarked on in 2008 after finding a black hole in his pension fund, bringing new depths of passion to an arrangement drenched in backing vocals and Hammond organ. In a recording made at London’s O2 Arena he clenches his fist and closes his eyes as he sings: “I’ll stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah”.

But what is the song about? “Hallelujah” is a Hebrew word, meaning “praise God”; but with its reference to Bathsheba, there’s sex as well as spirituality in the song. There is no “narrative”; it is, rather, a series of meditations. As Cohen himself said: “The song explains that many kinds of Hallelujahs do exist. I say: all the perfect and broken Hallelujahs have an equal value. It’s a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way but with enthusiasm, with emotion.”

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