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.