News & Commentary Why Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is the most misunderstood song in pop culture history By Luke Buckmaster | November 13, 2016 | Leonard Cohen meet Shrek, Shrek meet Leonard Cohen. In the middle of the happy-go-lucky 2001 kids movie about a blabbermouth green ogre, accompanied on frolicsome adventures by an ensemble of adorable fairy tale creatures, suddenly we heard the late poet’s profoundly complicated pop culture canticle, Hallelujah. It’s one of the most covered songs in history and almost certainly one of the most widely misunderstood. After arriving on Cohen’s 1984 album Various Positions, Bob Dylan was one of the first musicians to embrace it. Eventually the song went everywhere; the music world’s equivalent of a sleeper hit. Celine Dion, Justin Timberlake, Alicia Keys, Bono, Boni Jovi, Willie Nelson, André Rieu, Susan Boyle are among countless artists with runs on the Hallelujah cover board. Every second episode of The Voice and Whatever Country’s Now Got Talent contains a rendition. The song is played at funerals and weddings everywhere. Right now somebody is getting married and listening to it. Right now somebody is mourning and listening to it. Right now somebody is performing it in Yiddish. Most memorably, Jeff Buckley’s rendition on his 1994 masterpiece Grace. Buckley’s voice, truly a gift from the gods, majestically sang the song as a parcel passed down from the heavens. This is generally the way it is performed: as something impossibly divine. Something to stand up and rejoice about. Something exquisitely beautiful. Something from the angels. But the key to understanding the work of one of the greatest singer-songwriters, who recently died, aged 82, is that when Leonard Cohen talked about angels it was almost always in the context of fallen ones. Bitter irony flows like an ocean through his writing, connecting the various inlets. You could hear some of it in Cohen’s deep, salty, penetrating voice. The vocals of artists who cover it tend to go the other way, reaching for the heavens. In turn, concealing much of the bittersweet meanings evoked by Cohen. The songwriter famously described his reputation as a ladies’ man as “a joke that caused me to laugh bitterly through the ten thousand evenings I spent alone”. He had a reputation, to put it lightly, for being dark. I remember through the haze of my university years somebody describing one of his albums, perhaps all of them, as “slit your wrists music”. Not a fair definition IMO, but it stuck. Speaking to the London Daily Telegraph on the subject of him being a bit of a Negative Nelly, Cohen once responded: “I don’t consider myself a pessimist at all. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin”. The words “the cold and the lonely” and “the holy or broken” are surely clues to the riddle of the song. Like so much of his work, you read/hear those sentences once, twice, three times and the layers go deeper. The words stay with you. When you hear singers perform Hallelujah as beautifully as they possibly can, the song’s complexities tend to get smoothed out, or even smothered by their voices – a fine wine devolved into a glass of Passion Pop. That is not to say it cannot be, or is not, beautiful. But the beauty is complicated and bathed in sadness. The words “the cold and the lonely” and “the holy or broken” are surely clues to the riddle of the song, of which different versions exist. Take the seventh verse, which, when you read it, suddenly sounds nothing like the domain of Susan Boyle: Maybe there’s a God above, As for me, all I’ve ever seemed to learn from love Is how to shoot at someone who outdrew ya. Yeah but it’s not a complaint that you hear tonight, It’s not the laughter of someone who claims to have seen the light No it’s a cold and it’s a very lonely Hallelujah. I’ve contemplated those words quite a bit over the years. The grounds for my initial thoughts about that verse arose from a slightly different version of the above, which went like this: Maybe there’s a God above, As for me, all I’ve ever seemed to learn from love Is how to shoot at someone who outdrew ya. Yeah but it’s not a complaint that you hear tonight, It’s not the laughter of someone who claims to have seen the light No it’s a cold and it’s a very lonely Hallelujah. If you didn’t see it, there’s a line break after “lonely”. Listening to the song, I always heard a line break in my head. But when I found written versions, most of the time it didn’t exist. This change had a huge impact on my interpretation of Hallelujah (likewise for the last line of the third verse: “The holy or the broken Hallelujah,” contrasted with “The holy or the broken / Hallelujah”). In the first version it is the “Hallelujah” that is cold and very lonely. In the second, “Hallelujah” is the word that describes the thing that is cold and very lonely. The latter felt to me like the poet shrugging his shoulders, as if to say to hell with it – what better way to describe pain and angst than using a word that doesn’t mean pain and angst at all (a very Cohen kind of sarcasm). The significance of the first line in the fifth verse (“Maybe there’s a god above”) is fundamental, in that it reiterates the song is not written from the perspective of a person of faith. Cohen once said: “I wanted to push the ‘Hallelujah’ deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world”. There are times when we see the writer attempting to rationalise the sacrilegious, only to seemingly give up and and throw the question back on an unknown accuser: You say I took the name in vain I don’t even know the name But if I did, well really, what’s it to you? The song is steeped in Christian imagery and this is Cohen attempting to come to terms with the third commandment. If we are instructed that “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” the instruction comes with an inference that we know what God’s name is in the first place. But if an exclamation such as “Jesus!” or “God!” is uttered without significance (i.e. in vain) by somebody with no grasp (perhaps no education) of what people of faith believe God to be, can that accusation still have merit? Alternatively, can’t any word be used to describe God depending on the nature and comprehension of the observer (a rose by any other name, etc.) thus any word could break that commandant? If so, Cohen appears to be saying, what’s in a name, then, and really, what’s it to you? Hallelujah clearly invites interpretations and these ones merely scratch the surface. The song’s impact arises not from reading it line by line, per se, but line to line. It works like cinematic juxtaposition. Each line is an image, and meaning is formed not from a single image but a combination of two or more. In motion pictures, if we see a shot of a sad-looking man followed by a shot of a coffin, we understand the man is grieving. If we see a sad-looking man followed by an apple, we understand he is hungry. Most, perhaps all, poetry works in similar ways, connecting meaning one line to the next. But in Hallelujah, and Cohen’s work more broadly, the area between those lines is a particularly playful space – where the real heart, soul and depth of meaning lies. Shrek and his mates, I dare say, didn’t quite get to the bottom of it. Having said that, turns out the film’s co-director may have actually comprehended what he was working with – perhaps more so than those angelic-sounding cover artists. “The song came at a moment of emotional irony,” he said in a 2012 book, “taking something that’s a celebration and playing it against itself”. Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn Email About the Author: Luke Buckmaster Luke Buckmaster is film critic and writer for Daily Review, and contributes commentary to a range of Australian publications.