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Why Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is the most misunderstood song in pop culture history

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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

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”.

40 responses to “Why Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is the most misunderstood song in pop culture history

  1. Having bought my wife most of Leonard Cohen’s musical output (and becoming a huge fan myself in the process), I then bought her a book of the words of his poems and songs. Based on this evocative appraisal of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” by Luke Buckmaster, it now seems necessary to actually read the book myself!
    Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. This is lovely, Luke. I’ve thought about this song a lot over the years too, and the inability to grasp it in a way that makes it easy to label is what makes it such a saving grace.

    ‘Cause if there’s anything we need more now, it’s the stuff that defies categorisation, that we need to sit with, not dissect. And this song has survived all my dissections.

    I remember wheb I first read the poem Love is a Deep and a Dark and a Lonely by Carl Sandberg. It feels in the same territory. The darkness is not to be repressed. If it does it becomes a monster of 24/7 fluorescent destruction and a Hallmark card all at once.

  3. John Cage’s version of ‘Hallelujah’ is superb at bringing out the bleak side of this song, for me.
    I’m not sure, though, that Cohen would mind that people interpret it differently.
    A minor point: not suggesting that this is Luke Buckmaster’s fault, but the header to this article is seriously annoying with its “there is a correct reading of this song that only I know, and all you idiots have missed it!!”
    For a second I thought that Helen Razer must be the author 🙂

    1. Did John Cage do a soundscape version of Hallelujah? That would be a cold and lonely one, probably.

      Perhaps you mean John Cale.

  4. This exquisite song captures the paradox of Christianity. A faithful Jew who is the Son of God presents to the world as a loser – dead on the cross. That paradox is expressed in the Church he established through his band of men and women gathered along the way towards his destined call – saints and sinners. The gift of joy and peace carried amidst the turmoil that the Cross entails. God amidst the muck in life. With his references to David, Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah, Cohen is working with the paradox passed from the Jewish faith into the Church of saints and sinners. There can be a Hallelujah sung amidst the brokenness of life as a shaft of light appears.

  5. What a load of pretentious, confused and meandering waffle.. you tie your premise to the use of the song in Shrek – which came out some 20 years after the song was written (though, unlike you, the director seemed to understand exactly what he was doing..).

    The word is simply an expression of worship or rejoicing – both religious and secular, the song flows from that, with simile and metaphor: simples.

  6. What a lovely thing to do Robert Culbard – hope it’s a source of joy and good discussion for you and your wife.
    I’ll be going back to the book (bought but unread) on the basis of this piece myself. Better than the English teachers I had on poetry…

  7. 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?

    Not Christian imagery Luke – Jewish imagery. Leonard Cohen, as well as being Buddhist, was a practising Jew all his life. In Judaism the name of God is represented on paper by a series of four letters which translate to Y-H-W-H. The pronunciation has been accepted by some as Jehovah but in the Jewish tradition the actual pronunciation is considered unknown and unknowable. The rest of the song is absolutely stacked with Jewish imagery relating to the prophets David and Daniel among others.

  8. It is a song that has been covered many times, not all of them very well (Michael Bolton?). I always thought John Cale’s version the best and the strength and tenderness of it accords with Luke’s interpretation above. Jeff Buckley’s version was elevated to spiritual status, no doubt a result of his untimely death, which is perhaps why people hold the view that it is akin to divinity.

  9. It is possible to over analyze any work of human creativity, and overlay an interpretation which may have no concordance with with artists intent. We all see the world through the foggy glasses of our individual experience, interaction, prejudice, expectation, etc. Now that the the creative artist (Leonard Cohen) has departed, he is no longer able to offer any counter point to that offered by legions of the well paid class of opinionated critics, taste makers, culture analysts, and such. Hopefully Luke receives a decent financial return for his offering. The keyboards of his fellow media jackals will be clattering busily for this weeks meal ticket in a competitive marketplace. If he really wants to expand the profitable industry he might consider a treatise on Leonard’s album “The Future”. How about “Democracy is coming to the USA” or “Closing Time”? Much meat to chew on. Definitely a pay cheque to be garnered there.

  10. Luke, thanks for such an inspiring piece, and thanks to all those who commented. As we know, interpretation is a dance between our own projections and a genuine desire to meet the author at his source. I wonder if anyone asked Leonard what he thought it was about, and whether even he had the same interpretation over the years? He created poetry which was loved by those who don’t usually give a toss for the art, and opened so many hearts to a secular hearing of Hallelujah, freeing it from it’s religious chains. I salute him.

  11. Come on – any musician knows what it’s about:
    * You play music which elevates your soul;
    * You meet the girl of your dreams;
    * She wants you to sell your gear and get a mortgage –
    The rest is just decoration.

  12. A bit of a reach. Hallelujah with or without a line break? It’s a song, listen to the phrasing, rather than look at how it got transcribed.

  13. No, the point of Cohen’s song has been missed entirely. It is a song about King David, the biblical author of the Book of Psalms. A true warrior and very much a fallen man, but a master of the ancient lute and described in 1 Samuel as the man ‘after God’s own heart’. The key is in the words ‘sacred chord’. Read Geraldine Brooks’ recent and amazing work ‘The Sacred Chord’ and you will get it. Word for word, Cohen’s song describes the life, failings and sheer humanness of this biblical king, the only person in the Bible of whom we know much, with very few gaps or missing bits.

    Not dismissing Luke Buckmaster’s thoughtful essay, but it really isn’t that simple. It is a song about King David. Whether Cohen ever admitted as much, I do not know, but having read Brooks’ thoughtful and thoroughly researched ‘biography’, there is no doubt in my mind what Leonard was alluding to.

  14. What Adrian Kayman, (above, 15/11/16 at 1.59pm) says is absolutely true. Read Geraldine Brooks’ ‘The Secret Chord’ and you will immediately understand what the song is about. The song has absolutely nothing to do with sentimental love-songs or the movie ‘Shrek’ – it has everything to do with King David and for this alone it should be recognised and respected. The key is in the phrase ‘sacred chord’ – minor fourths and perfect fifths complete the illusion to the lute or harp (nobody knows for certain, but it was most probably a type of harp that David fashioned, though nobody knows for certain). Cohen’s allusions to the Jewish/Hebrew Bible throughout the song all but prove this. The song really is a struggle between human baseness and the desire to follow God, through God’s generous gift – the ability to play wonderful music and appease the soul.

  15. You should be a little more forgiving. The song is about King David. I have already explained my reasoning at length in the two posts that I have forwarded tonight which have not been published. Read 1 Samuel in the Hebrew Bible and Geraldine Brooks’ ‘The Sacred Chord’ and you will get it immediately. Cohen’s song has a far deeper meaning than that proposed by Luke Buckmaster. The song is a precis of the Book of Psalms, 1 Samuel, and is a deep reflection upon Cohen’s Jewish roots.

    1. “Except Cohen was Jewish,” said in reply. Another, and thankfully, yours notes this Cohen piece strongly references his Jewish Faith upbringing. It was refreshing to find your accurate and direct references as well as bravery to point out to the author of this article that such a strong and widely published near-authoritative opinion would have been more acceptable had he at least bothered to have been mildly knowledgeable about the writer he was so robustly waxing on about.

  16. This is an explanation by the people who worked with Leonard Cohen on Various Positions and the recording of this song, and the man himself. Anyone familiar with tbe Old Testament would know this is about the story of King David and Bathsheba, with elements of Cohen’s characteristic irony and deeper metaphysical musings. It’s beautiful.

  17. It is generally accepted that John Cale’s version on the 1991 tribute album I’m Your Fan was critical to wider exposure of the song’s potential. Surprising he didn’t get a mention. The song’s subsequent overexposure has given an ironic twist to the expression ‘slit your wrists music’.

  18. Not to argue with all of the above interpretations, but to me this song is about mourning lost physical intimacy with a loved one:

    Remember how I moved in you
    The holy dove was moving too
    And every breath we drew was Hallelujah..

    There was a time you let me know
    What’s really going on below
    But now you never show it to me, do you?

    with Hallelujah being the metaphor for shared joy in love. I also feel that the love was dampered by religious differences – Christian and Jewish perhaps – and that such arguments between the two lovers became predominant in their relationship. I am wondering how all the other people analyzing this could miss these references …

    1. I’ve always thought it was glaringly obvious that the song was about love and sex. It’s about the loss of power in surrendering during sex. It’s about the loss of love and intimacy (yes – “now you never show it to me”). It’s a very sad, bitter song. It just sets my teeth on edge to hear it sung as a pretty, spiritual and joyful hymn, just because the word “Hallelujah” is repeated in it and choirs enjoy singing that word.

  19. Well that was fun. How about we now discuss other “most misunderstood” songs. I’ve got three suggestions: “Part of the Union” – The Strawbs; “Angel” – Sarah McLaughlin; “Born in the USA” – Bruce Springsteen. Note also what all four songs have in common – irony. Yes… it’s a total killer, and not just for Americans.

  20. Leonard Cohen himself: “”This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.'” It’s not just about a “religious story”, get it through your skulls…

    1. The art of poetry or “use of words” is specific, IMO. We can play with shades of meaning, interpretation or even bias, as in the case of a loved song but, at the end of the day, the word meaning holds the verse true to fact. The song Hallelujah undeniably references church and more specifically, Christian genre. It is also undeniable, as Cohen stated in the quote posted April 1, 2017, that the world is full of conflict, etc. I get from his song that, he, in fact, was conflicted about what he perceived as a contradiction, was unresolved issues. To a devout Christian, the song is a mockery considering its verse. To some non-believers, perhaps, soulful expression. The tune is truly fantastic yet, like so many of his songs, dark and questionable, as if nothing really matters.

  21. I have come to believe that music is open for one’s personal interpretation and nobody is Right or wrong. What the original message that the artist was expressing will forever be only something he can comprehend. We may have an idea but like it was mentioned somewhere above the lyrics can have very different meanings .I have known this song all my life and as I learn and experience new things this song has changed along with everything else. And as time goes on will probably no longer believe what I do now. This realization has help me accept that I have the control to believe whatever I wish to and know that not everyone will agree. Music is something that is special to everyone and that’s all that you can expect. No one has the all the answers, but I may just as be as well wrong. The answers might be out there we just haven’t been able to discover them. Either way I know I believe what I want and know that if it is helping me find myself and be happy that’s all that matters. This song I can say has had everyone who has listened to it wonder about what what he is singing about, but we all can say that the feeling we get from this song, we can feel it, but we just can’t identify what it is. Maybe the purpose of this song is to have no purpose at all other than to make you question it.
    Sorry if I seemed to just ramble but it’s just another perspective to think about

  22. Music is whatever people make it out to be as individuals with outside influence or not. We are all human and that is what we have in common and that’s all a fact that we can trust. We all see and give meanings to the things in our live whether or not they understand it’s original purpose. This is a great song that over time has shown that music is not like a science where there is no argument for definitions of cert life aspects. 2+2=4 and that is because it it, but music doesn’t behave the same way. That’s why music has been a part of every culture for as long as we can tell. Well all have fought over religion and politics but we all have music. Two great enemies will always have one thing in common and that is that they think they are doing what’s right. We can’t ever change that but we all are still chasing our tails trying to do so. Only we can make the choice to act, think, then react the way that we think we should do. It may seem to others that we can’t change who we are because we are who we are, and that may also be true. The point is we don’t have to answers to everything in life, but we have much more power over how we see life that what we do now. Music is the only thing that brings us together as a species when we have no other way to communicate cause we can feel others emotions. We know what it’s like to be sad, happy, mad, scared,numb, and everything else and that’s what music is. A shared emotion with no other particular purpose.
    Sorry if it seemed like I just rambled but it’s just another perspective. Challenge what you believe

    1. Line six correction – ” whether or not we” not “whether or not they”
      If you have questions about my thoughts please feel free to email me, this is a subject that I love to explore and try to see how other people think. I won’t argue with you in anyway, but I’ll challenge your opinions to test their reliability. If your down to discuss what we see reality is and have a meaningful conversion, I insist that you try to contact me. My email is Trust me there’s a story behind my email address as well so don’t go assuming I’m just some crazy guy who is too out there to even try to reason with. I am open to everything ????

    1. i.e. intentional fallacy – English Lit 101. I’ve never been completely convinced myself. Just as I’ve never been completely convinced that Cohen ever actually rose above droning and boring.

  23. I first met Leonard Cohen through his work when I was 17 (Suzanne).
    I am now 72 and remain hypnotized

    R. Burton Wallace
    February 26, 2019

  24. It’s not clear if the article was written for a culture-centric audience. Your responders who have correctly identified Leonard Cohen as a highly educated, Jewish (and in later life Buddhist) poet laureate, are spot on.

    Mr. Cohen understands language and masterfully crafts his word choice with intent. His Old Testament (for Christians)/Hebrew Bible references are intentional. He learned from his Rabi father, the beauty of the ENTIRE spectrum of the human experience and our relationship with God. Even David knew the heart of God, and when, as a man, he fell from God’s grace, he repented. He ATONED. The Hallelujah is to give Glory to God, even in our atonement. As our lives should be. Do we fail? Yes, of course! Does God, in Heaven Above stop loving us. Not for all eternity. Hallelujah!

    1. This is the exact interpretation that is so on the sleeve that is clearly not anywhere in the meaning of the song. The fact that people sing this song in evangelical churches is damn near hilarious. I’m sure Cohen got a real ironic joy out of that.

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