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Hallelujah - a song that outgrew itself
Bryan Appleyard, The Sunday Times (U.K.)
Sunday, January 9, 2005

NB The following 'thought-piece' is not an article about Allison, obviously. It is, however, an interesting meditation upon popular song, and, particularly, upon Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" (first released 20 years ago). Allison's own, profoundly moving, version of "Hallelujah", (recorded relatively recently and now entering the public canon), is tribute to the power of this song. As Mr. Cohen says in one of his poems, "God is alive; magic is afoot".

Hallelujah!

One haunting ballad has been the soundtrack to many lives recently. But why? Bryan Appleyard on Leonard Cohen's uber-song

Songs are everywhere. We buy them and play them, of course, but we are also subjected to them in pubs, cafes, lifts and shops. You see people in cars singing along to the radio, and on trains they nod and rock to their MP3 players. Unthinkingly, we stroll along humming the latest pop pap. A visiting alien might reasonably conclude that we are sustained by songs rather than air, food or water. Songs are thus the dominant expressive form of our time. Yet most of them barely exist in our consciousness at all. Mass-produced drivel, they drift around the charts for a week or two, insinuate themselves into some particularly indiscriminating part of our brain for a while, and then are gone. Some have an afterlife as instant mood music for television shows, films or advertisements. But, by and large, songs are the supremely disposable art form of our time.

The exceptions are obvious. A few songs or performances are good enough to last, and some are just bad but evocative, and are therefore continuously recycled. Abba's songs aren't as good as everybody says they are, but they work in a way that makes them eminently usable. Equally, almost any rubbish that struck it big in the late 1960s can now be used to sell stuff to the moist-eyed middle-aged, who have discovered, to their infinite sorrow, that they were not, in the event, born to be wild.

All of which brings me to the story of one particular song that seems, through some mysterious alchemy, to have done everything a modern song can do. Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah has been papped, drivelled, exploited and massacred. It has also produced some very great performances, and it is, in truth, a very great song. In a fundamental sense, at least partly intended by Cohen, it is a song about the contemporary condition of song.

Even if you think you haven't heard it, I can guarantee you have. It has been covered by, among many others, Allison Crowe, kd lang, Damien Rice, Bono, Sheryl Crow and Kathryn Williams. Bob Dylan has sung it live, a performance that has, apparently, been bootlegged. It has been used in films and on television. Rufus Wainwright sang it on the soundtrack of Shrek, Jeff Buckley's version was used on The West Wing and The OC, John Cale sang it on Scrubs, and so on. Cale's is the best version I have heard - pure, cold and scarcely inflected at all, it sends shivers down the spine.

Other songs may have been covered more - in Cohen's oeuvre, Suzanne, with 124 versions, and Bird on the Wire, with 78, come out ahead of, at the last count, Hallelujah's 44. And other songs may have made it onto more soundtracks. But there is something unique about Hallelujah, something that tells us a great deal about who we now are.

Cohen recorded it on his 1985 album Various Positions. It seemed destined, at that point, to remain in the same memory vault as most of his work. Fans would love it, aficionados would acknowledge it as a fine piece of songwriting, but otherwise it would just be an addition to the repertoire of great Cohen songs, a large though highly specialised musical sector.

Then, in 1994, Jeff Buckley released a version on his album Grace. This sold millions worldwide, and Grace's status was finally and fully elevated to "legendary" when Buckley drowned in the Mississippi in 1997. He was the son of Tim Buckley, an extraordinary singer-songwriter who had also died young in mysterious circumstances. A wild and fatal romanticism seemed to hang over the family, over Grace and over the song that everybody found themselves singing from that album, Hallelujah. It was, unquestionably, Buckley's version rather than Cohen's that was to make the song universally recognisable.

This is fair enough. Buckley, like his father, had a phenomenal vocal range, and Cohen, famously, has not. Many of Cohen's best songs - Alexandra Leaving, Famous Blue Raincoat - are exactly suited to his low groan. But Hallelujah is not. It needs to be sung, and Buckley really sang it, whispering and screaming his way through its bitter verses. His interpretation is a little lush for me, but it was better than Cohen's, and it was exactly that lush- ness that projected it onto all those soundtracks and caught the attention of all those other singers.

What then became really odd about the song was the utterly contradictory way in which it was used and understood. This was, in part, due to the fact that Cohen seems to have written at least two versions. The first ended on a relatively upbeat note:

"And even though it all went wrong, I'll stand before the Lord of Song With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah!" It was this ending, curiously, that Dylan especially liked, as he told Cohen over coffee after a concert in Paris. Cohen sang him the last verse, saying it was "a rather joyous song". (Incidentally, during the same conversation, Cohen told Dylan that Hallelujah had taken a year to write. This startled Dylan. He pointed out that his average writing time was about 15 minutes.) Anyway, for once, Dylan's taste had led him astray, because the bleaker ending in the Buckley version is much better, in the sense that it is more consistent. There is no redemptive Lord of Song, the only lesson of love is "how to shoot at someone who outdrew you" and the only hallelujah is "cold and broken".

Encouraged by this apparently official duality, subsequent covers tinkered here and there with the words to the point where the song became protean, a set of possibilities rather than a fixed text. But only two possibilities predominated: either this was a wistful, ultimately feelgood song or it was an icy, bitter commentary on the futility of human relations.

It is easy to justify the first reading. There are the repeated hallelujahs of the soothingly hymn-like chorus, and there is a gently rocking tunefulness about the whole thing. This, if you didn't listen too closely, was what made it such perfect material for that supremely vacuous show The OC. Young, rich people - especially in California - often feel the need to look soulful and deep on camera, and the sound of doomed, youthful Buckley sighing Hallelujah as they all pondered the state of their relationships must have seemed about right.

But, of course, Cohen doesn't write songs like that. What he most commonly does is pour highly concentrated acid into very sweet and lyrical containers. Never in his entire career has he done this as well as he did in the second version of Hallelujah. The song begins with a statement about the pointlessness of art. Addressing a woman, Cohen writes of a secret chord discovered by King David. But he knows the woman doesn't really care for music. Nevertheless, he describes the lost music, as if to Bathsheba, the woman whose beauty overthrew David:

"Well, it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth The minor fall and the major lift The baffled king composing hallelujah."

The art is futile, because the woman doesn't care. Instead, she humiliates and destroys the man, though, even as she does so, "from your lips she drew the hallelujah". Man needs woman more than he needs art. The ejaculated hallelujah - a cry of praise to the Lord - is drawn forth not by David's secret chord, but by his subjugation to Bathsheba. The remainder of the song brilliantly weaves this theme through a cinematic description of a failed affair, combined with strange but delicate images of a military parade, a "holy dove" and a western shoot-out. The fourth verse comes close to a genuinely optimistic eroticism.

"But remember when I moved in you And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was hallelujah."

But the lover concludes that there is nothing more to love than a "cold and broken hallelujah". Sexual love is, sadly, what we need, but is it what we want? It is hard to imagine a more bitterly subversive and countercultural question.

The aesthetic trick at the heart of this is the undermining of the word hallelujah. It means praise to the Lord, but it is, basically, just a musical sound, like lalala or yeah, yeah, yeah. Describing the chord structure in those three lines in the first verse makes the words, sort of literally, into the music. Similarly, the chorus, which consists simply of the repetition of the word, is pure song, in which the words and music are inseparable. And it is a pure pop song or contemporary hymn - a catchy, uplifting tune and a comforting word. It has almost a sing-along quality. The words become the happy tune, the tune gets into your head and, once there, reveals itself as a serpent. For what you will actually be singing along to is arid sex, destroyed imagination, misogyny and emotional violence.

All of these have to be gone through to get to the "hallelujah": a romantic affirmation, certainly, but only of the pain of our predicament. After that conversation with Dylan, Cohen compared himself to Flaubert, meaning only that he was a slow writer. But he was more right than he knew. Like Flaubert, he sees the erotic as a kind of poison, deadening the artist and dragging him back to earth; and, like Flaubert, he delights in describing this awful insight.

So, the Hallelujah that adorns the flaccid sexual crises in The OC and adds soul to the babbling shenanigans of The West Wing is a brilliant fake. It sounds like a pop song, but it isn't. Like the Velvet Underground's Heroin, Bob Dylan's Leopard-Skin Pill- Box Hat, John Phillips's Let It Bleed, Genevieve or even Frank Sinatra's I Get Along Without You Very Well, it is a tuneful but ironic mask worn to conceal bitter, atonal failure.

Of course, this is such an effective aesthetic trick precisely because of the way songs have seeped into our lives. Instrumental versions of Heroin or Let It Bleed, Genevieve - the first advocating the nihilism of addiction, the second about a man who cares nothing for his girlfriend miscarrying in the basement - would go perfectly well in a lift or clothes shop, just as Hallelujah can slot into almost any television show you can imagine.

These works use familiarity, even banality, as a weapon. They remind us that, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, there is a real world beyond the pap, that perhaps we should try listening rather than just hearing, that words like hallelujah just need a brief touch of genius to be brought back to life, and that Leonard Cohen, who was 70 last year, needs to be with us for a good few years yet. Check out the Cale version: erotic failure never felt so good.