A cold and broken “hallelujah”

Today on the Virtual Book tour there are three stops (at least in theory). I’m interviewed at Broowaha (though they jumped the gun, date-wise). There’s a nice interview at As the Pages Turn, and a very short item at The Plot, where I’m scheduled to show up in more substantial form tomorrow.

Occasionally I blog about music here, on the strength of no expertise whatever. Although I was in a musical group for several years in my tragically well-spent youth, and am reputed to have a pretty nice voice, I never comprehended music theory, and have a lousy ear and very little sense of rhythm.

Nevertheless, sometimes a song hits me, mutates into an earworm, and won’t leave me alone until I blog about it. And so I’m going to meditate on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I’ve poked around YouTube looking for a cover I really liked, and frankly none I’ve heard has entirely satisfied me. All in all, I’m least disappointed in Rufus Wainright’s version:

I hardly need mention that I’m way out of the cultural mainstream, so I didn’t first encounter this song in “Shrek,” or on “Scrubs.” I first heard it on “House.” But once heard, never forgotten.

One of the least noted aspects of the sin of idolatry is that it’s sad.
A person invests his worship and existential longings in an object that is not God. As the Bible says (somewhere), “Why do you work and labor for that which is not bread?” The idolater is left starving in the end.

That’s what I see in “Hallelujah.” It’s clearly a song about human sex and romance, in hymn form. Theoretically that would seem blasphemous, but I think Cohen’s doing something deeper here (though he wrote 80 lyrics for the thing, most of which none of us have ever heard, so it’s problematic to try to figure out his intentions). What Cohen is saying, it seems to me, is that he has approached, and continues to approach, love and sex as a religious experience, but all the time he knows he’s laboring for that which is not food.

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played, and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do you?

An act of worship for one’s lover isn’t really the same thing as worshipping the Lord. And yet, he tries—

It goes like this

The fourth, the fifth

The minor fall, the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah

The story starts in self-mockery, and ends in disillusion.

I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch

Love is not a victory march

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

I make no claim to deeply understand Cohen, who is clearly a genius and one who plays his cards close to his vested suit. I’m a theological-critical outsider, observing love as a spectator, while he’s a man who’s gotten his contusions in the actual game. Even though Cohen is (as I understand) a practicing Jew (with a Zen Buddhist sideline), I’m not saying I’m doing more than guessing his intent.

But I see here a sympathetic critique of the modern mindset that seeks the transcendent in the flesh. It’s not a judgmental critique, but a heart-cry from the core of the tragedy.

Hey, I found a Norwegian connection! Here’s a video of a Norwegian group that had a big hit with a cover in their own country. I actually think it’s one of the best I’ve heard.

Embedding, alas, disabled. Click the link.

10 thoughts on “A cold and broken “hallelujah””

  1. I was thinking of how to write about this song a few days ago, but I’m a rube and didn’t have nearly the insight or at least interesting idea you have presented. I used to like this song before I could hear the words clearly. After listening to it three or more times, the second verse which combines Bathsheba and Delilah into something blasphemous provoked a strong rejection. I hate that verse, but maybe it’s the idolatry you are describing, and I don’t see through the sin to the truth in the whole. There’s something about the Holy Ghost in the last verse that grates on me too.

  2. I love this song; one of my favorites. something about it seems very honest and very broken, and I think most people have been there. After all, love is a very powerful idol when it doesn’t include the God who is Love, and even the best of us sometimes put it in the wrong place in our lives.

    Have you heard Allison Crowe’s rendition? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfpVq4rPfQg (She’s an Australian singer)

  3. Well, I can respect that it’s honest though flawed expression, but I don’t readily see it on my own.

    The first time I heard it, I think it was Allison Crowe, but not the one above. It was the live recording I see in another video.

  4. You know, on listening to more covers, and Cohen’s own, I think it all depends on who’s singing, and which verses he chooses. For some reason I heard several similar covers, which are all somewhat different from the way Cohen sings it.

  5. I love this song, too. John Cale chose the verses and form that most singers follow with Hallelujah. My favorite interpreter is Allison Crowe but it’s a song with almost as many different takes on it as there are people.

  6. I’ve always liked Jeff Buckley’s cover, but as someone said Cohen’s original is so different as to almost be a different song completely.

    I was never sure what the song meant exactly, I just knew that I felt it at a visceral level when I heard it.

    Just listened to the Allison Crowe version – love it.

  7. Just listened to Allison Crowe.

    Am now listening to John Hall’s version.

    Have listened to just about all the versions on Rhapsody since I read this posting yesterday.

    So how do you make such a decision? Allison seems more plaintive, John seems more hurt….

    So personally, if push comes to shove, and I don’t get tied up in the words too much, I do like the song but prefer Shrek singing it….

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