You Can’t Keep a Good Hook Down: ‘The Holy or the Broken’

It’s hard not to be sick of the song “Hallelujah”, and easy to forget it’s not the song’s fault. Though at this point it even seems redundant to call the song ubiquitous, that’s the word that best fits its present cultural position. From feature films such as Shrek (2001) and television shows like American Idol, to 9/11 commemorations and civil ceremonies, to YouTube clips and coffee house open mics around the world, it seems everyone everywhere is singing “Hallelujah!”

It wasn’t always so. In The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”, music writer and former Spin Magazine editor Alan Light details the story of this one song’s long and, as he says, unlikely struggle from initial obscurity to trickling recognition to seismic explosion and over-saturation to eventual calls for moratorium until — hallelujah! — canonical ubiquity. As Light weaves fine close readings of the song’s various versions with numerous interviews into an intriguing extra-musical story of the composition’s travels and travails — its adaptability and permutations, critical neglect and personal reclamations — The Holy or the Broken reads like an investigative oral biography of a song. A true songography.

Birthed on Leonard Cohen’s 1984 record Various Positions, where it opened side two, “Hallelujah” had an inauspicious start. Recognized early on only by Bob Dylan, who covered the song during his 1988 Never Ending Tour (leave it to Diamond Bob to mine the gems), the song might’ve languished as a forgotten number on a forgotten record. Fraught with release problems, Various Positions sounded like many of Cohen’s mid-to-current-career albums. While his earliest records were spare and bare — delicately plucked guitars deepened by the meditative drone of his voice — later producers, including, infamously, Phil Spector (applying his usual Wall of Sound and Guns approach to the largely abysmal Death of a Ladies’ Man, 1977), and John Lissauer (1974’s New Skin For The Old Ceremony, Various Positions), had taken Cohen’s sound into more orchestrated and prominently synthesized areas.

“Hallelujah” was no exception. Cohen’s version of the song on Various Positions is awash in synthesizers. Though still powerful and greatly affecting, it’s also deceptively unassuming. On first listen, the song threatens to pass (unless you’re Dylan, I guess) as just another number on the album — similar synthesizers, similar orchestration, identical indelible voice. The song’s one-line hook is a word so culturally ingrained, and sung so off-handedly, as to flit by nearly unheard.

The lush simplicity belies the attention given the recording. Producer Lissauer “took such care and extra time with every aspect of the arrangement and mix,” recalling, “‘This is gonna be the breakthrough, this record is really going to be important.’ ‘Hallelujah’ just jumped out at you…” But after CBS rejected the album as a “disaster”, and it was released on independent label PVC Records, the album received slight attention; as for the song “Hallelujah”, it received nearly none. Lissauer “felt horrible. I felt like I’d ruined [Cohen’s] career.”

ButCohen’s career has always proven resilient. In 1991, the Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan was released. Included on the album was a version of a little-known number called “Hallelujah”, interpreted by Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale. Cale is quoted: “I remember [seeing] Cohen at the Beacon, in New York, and I hadn’t heard [‘Hallelujah’] before and it just knocked me sideways.” It was Cale’s spare piano arrangement that captured the attention of a young singer-songwriter who would forever alter the trajectory of “Hallelujah”.

The book renews in captivation as Light moves into Jeff Buckley’s story (there are nice mini-biographies within this single songography). Buckley, a handsome, willfully eccentric singer, who, like his musician father Tim, died a tragic premature death, heard Cale’s version and quickly integrated into his set. The song became a pinnacle and a foundation of Buckley’s performance, and his eventual recording of the song on his debut album Grace (1994) would ultimately stand as the signature to his posthumous persona.

Light succinctly describes the song’s trajectory of “ownership”: “If Leonard Cohen was the author of ‘Hallelujah’ and John Cale was its editor, Jeff Buckley was the song’s ultimate performer.” Indeed, Light continues, for a “new generation of cool kids, [the song] belonged to Jeff Buckley.”

Though more recently, Cohen has reclaimed himself as the song’s supreme performer, Buckley’s version is undeniably stunning, especially on innocent ears (which innocence is damn near impossible with this song). Though I agree with Light, and others interviewed for the book, that there is a youthfulness inherent in Buckley’s version, a sensibility that just misses the lyric’s jaded resignation, Buckley elevates the song through sheer, spare exuberance. There’s an immediacy to his reverbed guitar, a near tactile audibility of his fingers on the frets, while the lyrical pauses, as before “ya know”, inject a conversational stammer into the phrasing, as if he is figuring at the moment of recording what to say or how to say it.

These are brash, youthful choices, inarguably staking a claim on the song. Glorifying in the composition’s “major lift”, Buckley’s version feels more like a first love, whereas Cohen’s Various Positions rendering feels like a last, or just another.

These two renditions alone attest to the song’s adaptability. The subsequent “Hallelujah” deluge would prove it further, sometimes overflowing the song’s interpretational limits.

Light recognizes “Hallelujah”’s position as a standard, “a song that is freed from its original performance or context and seeps into the general consciousness, where it is interpreted frequently and diversely.” He contrasts the song with John Lennon’s “Imagine”, another relatively simple composition with a devastating impact, if done right.

Which is to say: If done by John Lennon. Light differentiates “Imagine” from “Hallelujah” in its very link with Lennon. Even though the song is not quite as directly personal as, say, “Oh Yoko,” the two, song and man, are eternally entwined in some deep bio-musical manner: “Lennon’s recording of ‘Imagine’ is so iconic it can never truly be challenged, or even fully re-imagined, by a cover […] any new performance is instantly, however subconsciously, assessed in relation to the original.”

In other words, it’s impossible to “make the song your own”, as they’re so fond of saying on American Idol. “Hallelujah” differs from “Imagine” in that the song “isn’t fixed and formalized in the same way. Before it had even penetrated the general population’s consciousness, it had demonstrated that it is capable of withstanding multiple modifications, possibly resulting in a change of emphasis, but not its essence.”

Light covers a lot of these covers, not just the Holy and the Broken, but the Good, the Bad and the Ugly; he even provides scan-able links to some of the versions discussed in the book.

Among the Holy Good one must include the various renditions of the song by Cohen’s fellow Canadian k.d. lang. Though lang understandably cites her performance of the song at the 2010 Winter Olympics as her personal “Hallelujah” high point (“Singing that song, in Canada, for the world — it’s a pretty big, pretty beautiful opportunity.”), for me, her rendition at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame seemed much more intimate and invested, not least because inductee Leonard Cohen was sitting front row center.

Wherever her performance, lang scoops into the song’s words. Most powerfully she acts them out, not necessarily lyric for movement, but dramatizing the song’s narrative through a subtle physical telling. It’s all in the eyes: She believes every word she’s singing, especially the title word, which she repeats, draws out, soars into falsetto, groans… lang knows of what she sings.

Of the bad, broken, or even downright ugly versions of the song, Light includes, fittingly, Bono’s take. The U2 singer famously declared “Hallelujah” the “most perfect song” while delivering, or miscarrying, the most imperfect rendition ever. Light is incisive and refreshingly merciless in his assessment:

“Bono’s ‘Hallelujah’ is, unfortunately, just awful. While there might seem to be no singer as well equipped to handle the song’s balance of the earthly and spiritual […] his voice leaping into a falsetto for the chorus… feels forced and passionless.”

It seems Bono took the song’s interwoven conversational idiom too literally. His version sounds like someone who’s been smoking too much hashish and has too easy access to a recording studio. To the credit of both Bono and Light, the singer is here offered a redemptive explanation: “‘I wasn’t sure why I agreed to do this interview, then I remembered that I need to apologize to the world…’”

Light doesn’t just let his own judgments of the song’s versions stand, but bolsters his assessments with those of a host of others. In this sense, the book becomes a kind of mining of the song’s adaptability, digging at or around its multiple meanings:

Singer-songwriter Regina Spektor: “The production… reminds me of old Russian movies […] It’s an ever-changing and transporting song. You go somewhere every time you hear ‘Hallelujah.’ You never stay put. That song is the pillar of everything.”

Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan: “‘Hallelujah’ is not a hymn of the believer — it’s a hymn of the one who is full of doubt, a hymn of the heretic.”

k.d. lang: “[The song] has a lot to gravitate toward as a singer […] The structure of the song, the melody of the refrain; it gives you a lot to work with.”

Jon Bon Jovi (whatever one thinks of his performance of the song, apparently Cohen himself likes it; that has to count for something, no?): “I got the irony, got the sexuality. I won’t name the artists who have no clue of what’s inside those words, but I’ve often said that people in America know the chorus to that song, people in the rest of world know the verses.”

Related to this, the author states how the song “returns and lands, each time, on the reassurance and celebration of the title, which serves as a repeated, single-word chorus. The focus given to the hymnlike incantation of ‘hallelujah,’ in contrast to the romantic and spiritual challenges evoked by the verses, raises an eternal pop music dilemma: Are people really paying attention to all the words, and does it matter?”

That’s a really pertinent point, as it gets at the ineffable quality of Song, or more specifically of Chorus. Residing within Cohen’s Tower of Song is the Power of the Hook, generally that which resonates most strongly in most pop songs. While the function and effects of a hook are relatively sophisticated and complex — why do some sounds or combinations of sounds and not others nab a person’s interest, and what is the psycho-physiological reasoning behind this? — a hook itself is usually quite simple. In fact, I would venture to say that simplicity is a hook’s primary attribute: It must be so simple that even a toddler can sing along.

Certainly any toddler can grasp, even glory in, the repetition of the word “Hallelujah”, especially when sung to such an essentially uncluttered melody. Is this merely an automatic, instinctual response, or are there spiritual dimensions woven within the lineaments of the word itself?

Light delves into the song’s sacred as well as secular, or secular as sacred, dimensions, limning the composition’s religious reach “across the Judeo-Christian spectrum.” Through interviews with everyone from rabbis to reverends, Light concludes that the spiritual consensus is wonder over “how the song remains so open to interpretation and flexible in meaning and construction […,] how easily it fits into services and celebrations of multiple faiths […T]he words composed by the Jewish Buddhist travel easily from church to synagogue…”

(As I’m writing this, a Catholic religious service is on television and the hymn sounds pretty much like a slight, and I mean slight, alteration of the song: Ancient hymn informs modern hymn and now the latter insinuates itself back into the former.)

As sick as I thought I was of “Hallelujah”, The Holy or the Broken reenergized the song for me, gave it new resonance. In fact, the song has been tolling in my brain since I started reading the book, and all through this writing. I think I need to clear it out of there for a while. Maybe some Lou Reed: Metal Machine Music?

RATING 8 / 10