The Sunday Times (UK)
9 January 2005

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. And 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 undiscriminating part of our brain for a while and then they are gone. Some have an afterlife as instant mood music for TV 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 (or 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 useable. Equally, almost any rubbish that struck it big in the late sixties 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 that 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, K. D. lang, Damien Rice, Bono, Sheryl Crow and Kathryn Williams. Bob Dylan has sung it live in a performance that has, apparently, been bootlegged. It has been used endlessly in films and on TV. Rufus Wainwright sang it on the sound-track 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 own oeuvre, "Suzanne" boasts 124 versions and "Bird On The Wire" possesses 78 treatments; both come out ahead of, at the last count, 44 renditions of "Hallelujah." Other songs may have made it on to more sound-tracks; but, there is something unique about "Hallelujah," something that tells us a great deal about who we now are.

Cohen released it himself on his 1984 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 very 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 River 29 May 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" or "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 lushness that projected it on to all those sound-tracks and caught the attention of all those other singers. But 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 Bob 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 fifteen 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 feel-good 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. Addressed to 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 him:

Well it goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, 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 [his] 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, "the 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 counter-cultural 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 la la la 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 Pillbox 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, that this is such an effective aesthetic trick is precisely because of the way in which 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 TV 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.

2005-2007 Bryan Appleyard

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