The Jewish singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen has been mischievously dubbed “the poet laureate of pessimism” and “the godfather of gloom.” He does not write the kind of songs guaranteed to get a party off to a rousing start. Perhaps the melancholic Irishman in me is drawn by the heartbreaking songs produced by his resonant baritone voice, at times indistinguishable from a husky growl.
I’ve wondered if the Canadian-born Cohen has some Irish blood. As W. B. Yeats is supposed to have said of a compatriot, “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” During a concert last April in Los Angeles, Cohen made a similar comment. “It’s a long time since I’ve stood up on the stage,” he said. “It’s about 14 or 15 years. I was 60 years old at the time, just a kid with a crazy dream. Since then I’ve taken a lot of Prozac, Paxil, Welbutrin, Effexor, Ritalin, Focalin. I also turned to a rigorous and profound study of the religions and the philosophies, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.”
Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah,” first released in 1984, attracted little attention at first except from diehard fans. The record company was initially reluctant to release the song. But today things have changed for this gospel-y tune that saunters along with a gentle waltz-like feel. Right now there are about 200 cover versions of the song available in various languages. In February, K. D. Lang gave a mesmerizing performance of “Hallelujah” at the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Winter Olympics. The tragic death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the 21-year old Georgian luger, a few hours before made the lyrics of the song especially appropriate. A month earlier, a highlight of the Hope for Haiti Telethon was a haunting performance of “Hallelujah” by Justin Timberlake and Matt Morris. In a moment of great tragedy for the Haitian people, the song captured the appropriate mood and, not surprisingly, became the top-selling song from that telethon.
The English singer Alexandra Burke released a cover version of “Hallelujah” as her debut single in December 2008. It raced to the top of the U.K. charts, became Britain’s top-selling song of the year, and made Burke the first British soloist to sell a million singles in her native U.K. Meanwhile, fans of another version of “Hallelujah,” by the late Jeff Buckley, campaigned to have his version reach number one. As a result, two versions of the same song occupied the number one and number two slots around Christmas 2008. Earlier that year Buckley’s version had powered to the top of the iTunes chart, also thanks to a performance by a competitor on “American Idol.”
Many people still regard the Jeff Buckley recording  from 1994 as definitive. Buckley succeeded in transforming the gloominess of Cohen’s original lament to an uplifting tribute, capturing the beauty and pain of human life. Like Cohen’s original rendition, Buckley’s version did not achieve instant recognition. It became a hit only several years after his death in 1997, when the song was used in the 2001 film “Shrek.”
It was not Leonard Cohen but another singer, John Cale, who came up with the definitive lyrics in 1991. Cale had heard Leonard Cohen perform “Hallelujah” live, but when he asked Cohen for the lyrics, he was surprised to receive 15 different verses. Cohen had been experimenting with so many different lyrics that he had never fixed on one version. Cale went through all the verses and arrived at the version that has since become standard, and which even Cohen himself now tends to follow.
How did a song with so many biblical references (none of which refer to the New Testament) become ubiquitous? How did a lyrical, slow-moving tune become popular in an era when aggressive percussion and insistent drum-beats power pop songs? Why has the song been used to create atmosphere and mood in the soundtracks of many movies and TV shows? Why can’t people get enough of it?
Precisely because it embodies a real and gritty spirituality. It is not afraid to embrace the tragedy of human life. As Cohen sings in “Anthem”:
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
There is always a crack, even in the midst of profound suffering. At the beginning of “Hallelujah,” King David, the composer of psalms in praise of God, has happily discovered a secret chord with which to give God joy. But soon the king succumbs to temptation:
Well your faith was strong but you needed proof You saw her bathing on the roof Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you.
Well your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you.
The reference to David is mixed up with allusions to Samson and Delilah, as the song goes on to tell how
She broke your throne and she cut your hair.
The power of David and the strength of Samson are cut away; the two are stripped of their facile certainties, and their promising lives topple into the dust. The man who composed songs of praise with such aplomb and the man whose strength was the envy of all, now find themselves in a stark and barren place. When we fall to sin, we wake up to bitterness. We realize that love is not the easy triumph we once imagined it to be:
Love is not a victory march It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.
When we find ourselves in desolation, we ask: How can we stay alive when we have kissed death? Is faith still possible? Has love lost its savor and sweetness? David, Samson and all of us are vulnerable, exposed to the chill of a spiritual wasteland. Yet we need not surrender to despair; instead, we can find our way forward to a new way of hoping and praising God, though one devoid of sugary sweetness and false romanticism. We no longer come before God with full arms, but only with empty hands:
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
One reason that “Hallelujah” appeals is that it gives voice—and song—to the spiritual hunger of millions who find it difficult or impossible to identify with orthodox expressions of their longings. This song expresses their human fragility and their desire to be released from the shallowness of our age, which offers substandard spiritual fare. They search; they desire to reconnect with the transcendent, even though their search is often handicapped by an astonishing spiritual inarticulateness. The danger is that a lack of spiritual anchors will condemn them to aimless drifting or submersion in the inescapable sameness of a culture for which all forms of spirituality are of equal indifference, a culture not rooted in the definite contours offered by religious faith.
“Hallelujah” does not end with neatly packaged answers. Instead it is content to stay with the rawness of an open wound, though allowing a sliver of hope to shine through. We can only hope if we can let loss run its course, without giving in to the compulsion to end its discomfort prematurely. There is a beauty in this kind of acceptance, a wisdom hidden in the knowledge that even when we suffer, there is still light. This illumination ennobles us even as we labor to find vindicating words and reasons. There is a transfiguring dimension to our struggles, because our nights are pierced by a divine light. We can learn to recognize hidden springs of water gushing from what seems to be only a desert.
Leonard Cohen has spoken of the redemptive potential of the word “Hallelujah,” and how it can be a source of inspiration and illumination in a spiritual wasteland: “Regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say ‘Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.’ And you can’t reconcile it any other way except in that position of total surrender, total affirmation.”