BY BRYAN APPLEYARD
The Sunday Times (UK)
9 January 2005
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.
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.
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
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
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
Well it goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
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
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
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.
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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