In the past 50 years, only a handful of songs have attained truly iconic status and become cultural touchstones that transcend artist, genre, and even language. Think “Imagine,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Born in the U.S.A.” Despite that its genesis has been frequently misattributed, add to that list “Hallelujah,” the plangent yet hopeful ballad by Leonard Cohen, the legendary poet and singer-songwriter.
“Hallelujah” is the subject of the latest book from Alan Light, former Vibe and Spin editor in chief. In “The Holy or the Broken,” Light demonstrates his prodigious critical abilities, deconstructing Cohen’s song and its mushrooming popularity. As he writes, the song “has persevered, mutated, expanded over the decades, accruing more and more attached memories through all of these interpretations and deployments.” Featured in the blockbuster movie “Shrek,” in addition to a host of TV shows, a version of the song even served as the backdrop for VH1’s post-9/11 tribute video.
At the beginning, though, “Hallelujah” was just an overlooked track on Cohen’s 1984 album “Various Positions,” an LP that his label initially refused to release because of its perceived lack of singles. It wasn’t until 1991 that the song achieved wider exposure, thanks to the version recorded by former Velvet Underground member John Cale, who “planted the seeds” for the “explosion that would follow.”
The explosion first found its spark in the form of Jeff Buckley, who included an extended version of “Hallelujah” on his 1994 album “Grace,” which has become a significant-selling album in the years since the singer’s death in 1997. “If Leonard Cohen was the author . . . and John Cale was its editor,” writes Light, “Buckley was the song’s ultimate performer.” Light provides a diverting, intriguing section on Buckley’s career and influence, refracted through the singer’s experience with Cohen’s song but also extended beyond it to encompass a brief snapshot of the ’90s music scene.
The author’s lucid prose keeps the pages turning, as he offers fluid, accessible descriptions of what makes “Hallelujah” — and Cohen — so special. For many, including the author, it’s the musician’s voice and delivery: “It is a poet’s voice, a sound of experience and reflection. What Cohen lacks in range is more than compensated for by his inflections and nuances. He gives little ground to pop arrangements, but his lyrics can bear the weight.”
Though Cohen declined to be interviewed for the book — not surprising given his well-known aversion to publicity — Light fills in all the necessary details through conversations with admirers and collaborators, including, among dozens of others, Bono, k.d. lang, Jon Bon Jovi, Rufus Wainwright, Brandi Carlile, Cale, and Jake Shimabukuro. The author also includes a useful selected discography for the song and a list of QR barcodes for readers to enjoy various performances of the song.
In the past few years, Cohen’s popularity has surged, especially after his 2008 and 2009 tours, highlighted by his performances at both Glastonbury and Coachella, in which the septuagenarian stole the show from many of the younger, hipper acts.
In the end, Light strips down his own prose to summarize the mythical nature of the song, its creators, and its many interpreters: “A venerated creator. An adored, tragic interpreter. An uncomplicated, memorable melody. Ambiguous, evocative words. Faith and uncertainty. Pain and pleasure. A song based in Old Testament language that a teen idol can sing. An erotically charged lyric fit for a Yom Kippur choir or a Christmas collection. Cold. Broken. Holy.”
It’s a fitting end to a well-constructed, consistently enlightening book, which should have Cohen devotees and music fans alike seeking out their favorite version of the song.
Eric Liebetrau is the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.