Nathan Chang

Nathan Chang is restless. He is an aspiring writer, chef, tailor, and mixologist. He can be indecisive. Nathan currently lives in DC where he has a job that isn't political. He can be reached at nathanchang@outlook.com.

Buckley’s “Hallelujah”

Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” resides in that pantheon of great songs that have been sung, interpreted, chopped, parodied (intentionally and unintentionally), and beaten to death, ranking so high on the scoreboard of abused songs that I suspect only “Amazing Grace” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” are above it.

However, to call the song “Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah'” is to omit a very important part of the song’s ever-increasing history: Leonard Cohen didn’t make the song famous, Jeff Buckley did. Were it not for the fact that Buckley was covering Cohen, one might argue that they are two entirely different songs. In fact, I will. Jeff Buckley took Leonard Cohen’s song and made it into the transcendent, over-covered, misinterpreted both by listeners and performers, incredibly famous song that it is today.

In a recent article/op-ed, Marvin Olasky provides some reflections on “Hallelujah.” After admitting that the melody is beautiful, that the song is popular, he gives a cursory analysis of the lyrics, declaring the song unfit for Christian consumption and debuts some “improved lyrics.” (Following the smashing success of his “Gr8 is Thy Faithfullnss x Doxology vs. St8 Anthem of the USSR” mashup). Olasky doesn’t try to answer the questions “Why is this song so popular? And why can’t I reconcile it with my faith?” with anything other than giving credit to “partly the tune.” Reading over Olasky’s piece several times I could come to no other conclusion than that the deadline was tight, he had just read the kindle preview of The Holy or the Broken? by Alan Light and then decided that instead of listening to the song, meditating on it, and coming up with a thoughtful reflection, it would be better to declare it heretical and fix it or, in his words,“take it captive,” by slapping a ichthus sticker on its lyrics. He was wrong to do so.

Jeff Buckley took Leonard Cohen’s song, with its problematic, tongue-in-cheek, cheeseball gospel choir mockingly singing “Hallelujah,” and interpreted the music and the lyrics into a beautiful reflection on brokenness, imperfect love, and most importantly, grace. Cohen’s lyrics are about fallen and sinful perversions of love. The second verse beautifully captures the falls of David and Samson, with broken crowns and cut hair, Bathsheba and Delilah drawing from lips “hallelujah.” “Hallelujah” is the highest praise that can be bestowed upon God, and it appears at the end of each verse in this song, repeated with nuanced subtlety and fragility, defeat and ecstasy. With each declaration of “hallelujah” Buckley expresses the misplaced love, the fall, the shame, the regret, and even the hope in grace that comes from God himself. Even though David and Samson both fell and fell hard, they were not beyond the redemptive mercy of grace and forgiveness. They both accomplished incredible things despite their faults, because that is what it means to be human. This is where Buckley shines—in drawing out the nuance of these two stories and establishing a tone for the rest of a song in which “hallelujah” is used not sarcastically but as an emotionally charged exploration of what it is to be human, to fail, and to still be able to see the goodness of love.

With these biblical stories in place, the rest of the verses follow suit in reference to the singer’s experience, and Jeff Buckley executes each verse perfectly. The third verse delves into loneliness, and how messy love is (“Love is not a victory march/It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah”) and the uncertainty of human fickleness that is outstripped by the glory of relationships that are worthy of a “hallelujah.” The fourth verse (which Olasky seems to have a problem with because it refers to orgasms) describes a relationship gone cold; the lover who is left behind reminisces about the intense intimacy that sex offers, likening the consummation of their past love to the holy dove. There is so much meaning in this verse, and you can interpret it however you want, but you can’t deny that this scene is given tender and respectful treatment by Buckley. From Adam to “Song of Solomon” to Jesus and his bride, the Church, the discussion and depiction of sex is intertwined with an understanding of not only mortal relationships but also divine.

At its core, “Hallelujah” is a song about the depth of our longing for love and our understanding of its inherent goodness, despite the symptoms of our brokenness that often accompany our pursuit of it. It is a love song for love that has died, misappropriated love, and lost innocence that can’t be restored, and yet, beside the grief, there is still an active choice, to declare “hallelujah,” again, and again, and again. That’s heavy. It’s a profound statement against every Sunday School RomCom story with its head in the sand pretending that love always wins with happy endings and no casualties.

Furthermore, it’s a song that grasps how emotionally and spiritually complicated imperfect love is, that contrasts the experience of broken love with that which is perfect, steadfast, and unchanging, even in the midst of suffering for our faults. This is the greatness of the song, and the delicate balance that is held between the beauty of the melody and the teetering emotions in Jeff Buckley’s voice from defeat to ecstasy and everything in between. One cannot help but be moved by it, which is why it’s so often used for cheap emotional impact in soundtracks—but that’s another thing altogether. This song’s fame has skyrocketed because it has a sound that is transcendent and it has words of mystery and prayer without alienating its listeners. It speaks to the central tension of sin. What Olasky has done in trying to ‘reconquer’ this song for Christ is sanitize the humanity out of it.

I don’t think that Leonard Cohen took the word “hallelujah” lightly when he wrote his song, and I don’t think the song he ended up with takes it lightly either. Admittedly, in the original version, the last two verses are odd and bitter, though not without their merit.  I think Buckley chose to sing only five of the verses because he was striving to understand it intimately and bring life and feeling to the words to make them his own. But he didn’t turn it into a Christianized commodity. He did something creative, constructive, and rich.

We Need To Talk About Mumford

“Listening to the new Mumford & Sons album. Wait nope just some goats eating a banjo.” —Sammy Rhodes, a.k.a. @prodigalsam

With their tweed jackets, braces (suspenders to us Yankees), and brogues, pickin’ banjos and strummin’ and stompin’ and hollerin’ with all their ragged might, Mumford and his sons (who in fact do not own a dry goods store) want so desperately for you to believe. They want you to earnestly believe that those moments when you’re feeling flawed, and sometimes hurt, beaten down, and need to heal are the moments when music can capture our lowest lows and our highest highs, leading us on a path to triumphant, exuberant, ecstatic, cathartic joy. All this can be yours if you just suspend your disbelief and accept that Mumford & Sons are an old-timey band from some nondescript town where they had to learn about life and love the old-fashioned way: through blood, sweat and nearly dying of dysentery. And now, with calloused hands and waxed mustaches, clad in tweed, they have come with their music to give you the soundtrack that you need to get through it, to feel it all, to be who you were meant to be, fully yourself.

Do they sell it?

Mumford & Sons are in a tough spot because there is a vast dissonance between their music and their words. This dissonance arises from the prioritization of style over substance. Their sound borrows heavily from American folk and bluegrass, the local music of rural people of modest means, but their words are the self-expressive, spiritual, existential crisis tweets of the city-raised, university-educated sort. Folk comes out of cultural tradition, oral histories, shared stories and specific regions. The songs belong to nobody and everybody, but they’re always telling a story. Marcus Mumford is not very good at telling stories, or rather he tells stories with such broadly painted obscurities of reference as to not be stories at all. Mumford & Sons’ lyrical style is ambient or atmospheric at best. Perhaps it’s just spheric, in that when Mumford is at his best, there is a general sphere of songness that the words sing and poke around in for five minutes. Oftentimes the only clue as to what an entire song is about is the title (“Babel,” “I Will Wait,” “Hopeless Wanderer”), and even then only the chorus seems to say anything about the title. At less coherent times, such as in the title track on their new album, we have advanced free association (editorial commentary in parentheses):

‘Cuz I know that time has numbered my days (life is short)
And I’ll go along with everything you say (just along for the ride)
But I’ll ride home laughing, look at me now (the laughing ride, Chris Brown reference?)
The walls of my town, they come crumbling down (town is a metaphor, perhaps it’s a Potemkin town, Babel/Jericho reference)
And my ears hear the call of my unborn sons (reference to the future and our potentiality, also babies)
And I know their choices color all I’ve done (back to the future)
But I’ll explain it all to the watchman’s son, (who watches the watchmen?)
I never lived a year better spent in love (it must’ve been love, but it’s over now)
‘Cuz I know my weakness know my voice, so now believe in grace and choice (he is finite, and not a Calvinist)
And I know perhaps my heart is farce, but I’ll be born without a mask (farce is not an adjective, possible poetic dropping of article, vague reference to a resurrected body)
Woo! (actual lyric, also the last word uttered by Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part 2 [radio edit])

It’s as if Mumford writes his songs by throwing vaguely spiritual, esoteric truths and literary one-liners into a hat and drawing them out at random.

Reading the lyrics from a Mumford & Sons song is a daunting task, not because they’re challenging, but because they’re incoherent. Mumford seems afraid of writing thoughts that are longer than two or three short lines, not that this matters when your main audience is looking for a style, catchiness and a hook rather than challenging lyrics. Songs don’t have to be philosophical treatises, but a good song—like a good poem—marries truth and efficiency of language through subtlety and the suggestive power of the unspoken. Creative Writing 101: “Show, Don’t Tell.” Someone missed the memo or doesn’t have enough faith in writing or audience or some combination of the above. This is of course what makes Mumford & Sons so quotable (especially on Twitter and on Sundays). Attention deficit results in a failure to tackle the difficult questions; the songs feign to wrestle with anything approaching thoroughness or even a serious effort.

This leads us to the greatest virtue of Mumford & Sons, which is also their most obvious crutch: they know how to get a crowd going. Consider them the acoustic-folk-rock cousins of Muse, with a sound that’s built for big, loud, live performances without much room for dynamics. If Muse is about the screaming sounds of an intergalactic quest on full blast, Mumford & Sons are about spiritual crisis and desperate faith packing out a pub. They got their chops playing live, and their first album showed it, but at least maintained some sort of musical restraint. On Babel they’ve taken all the things that make for energetic concerts, cut out the parts that made for a better studio album on Sigh No More and ended up with a monotonous album that drones—in short, a 21st century Billboard chart topper. This album is regressive.

Music is emotional, but there’s a problem when its emotions lack in nuance, variety, and don’t correspond to the lyrics, as is often the case in pop music. You can take any song by Mumford & Sons and skip to about two-thirds of the way through and it will sound about the same as any of their other songs, but surely not every one of their songs is about the same thing. “Hopeless Wanderer” features a double-time punk banjo ending just because it can. Screaming, harmonizing, double kick drums, trumpets, and furious banjo picking could elicit earnest vulnerability, but it could just as easily be considered overwrought.

The sincerity that Mumford & Sons attempt to present us is, simply put, hard to believe. This is in part because of how banal the lyrics are (a pop necessity that makes for easy relatability) and in part because they take themselves so seriously. The Avett Brothers (an inevitable comparison) exude a sincerity even deeper than Mumford’s. But they have a sense of humor, a personal aspect, and an unapologetic but entirely believable awareness of their occasional absurdity. Frightened Rabbit, a band that harbors more angst than all of Mumford put together, gets to indulge in raucous screaming and chorus builds because they, like the Avetts, have tender moments of non-stylized honesty and a sense of humor. More importantly, their honesty comes with musical restraint and selective orchestration. With restraint, “Riding in your cargo van/ Driving your mom’s cargo van/ If you only knew how charming it was/ The lure of your folks’ cargo van,” which are admittedly ridiculous words, believably capture the entirety of adolescent love, its innocence and its magic.

It is the unimaginative, manufactured earnestness that ultimately makes Mumford & Sons as emotionally unfulfilling as a lot of contemporary Christian praise music. They have perfected a songwriting formula lifted straight out of the Hillsong playbook: Take any deficiencies or failings of the lyrics to elicit emotion and add accompaniment with sufficient volume, then take a few lines and repeat them again and again with feeling and honesty. Surely if the drums come in at the right time and we throw in a key change, the song will be really emotional. It’s a problem in church, and it’s a problem on the radio.

When I first heard Sigh No More, I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it. Listening to his music, I think that Marcus Mumford has an artistic vision in mind and an idea of what he wants to say, he just doesn’t know how to say it. He has a fine voice, and the band is talented and capable of playing tight with a lot of energy whether live or in the studio, but this second album is not the direction they should have gone. I had hoped that they would take the best parts of their first album, the lyrics that do make coherent sense and explore truth, hope, and doubt, and develop them in a deeper way with the band paired back and learning to assemble a song that stands on its own without a blaring PA to accompany. The sophomore album is a chance for musicians to develop, carefully explore their material and use the success of their first album as a means of introducing their millions of fans to better music, but Mumford & Sons have instead pandered to pithy phrases and hackneyed emotionalism. Sadly, they chose to go in the opposite direction with even more opaque and scattershot lyrics accompanied most often by loudness. It isn’t too late, there’s always hope for a third album, but given their popularity, sales numbers (Babel having just overtaken Justin Bieber’s As Long As You Love Me as highest grossing album of 2012), and audience, I suspect they won’t. Mumford & Sons are striving to grapple with serious questions of faith, existence, and relationships and their efforts to date haven’t been entirely unsuccessful, but I also think their ideas and their audience deserve better.