Song of Songs: Is Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah the Greatest Pop Song Ever Written?

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Nechama Brodie…a voice, a guitar, a Hallelujah. Press Play.

Sometimes I think about a world where all music has vanished or been forbidden, with the exception of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and the cover versions thereof.

I wouldn’t mind living in such a world, because Hallelujah is the Songs of Songs, a song about the singing of songs, a song about sin and redemption, a song about the primal link between music and sex and religion, a song about…

Well, there are many interpretations.

It is a simple song, almost classical in its composition, easy to fingerpick or strum on a guitar, with a structure that loops into infinity, as if it has been around since the beginning of time and will be around until the end.

It is a universal song, capable of being adapted into any language, and adjusted to suit any shade of meaning from the sacred to the profane.

It lends itself equally well to waltzes and quicksteps and marches, to introspective arpeggios and grandiose orchestral movements and candle-lit choral acapellas.

It has become such a standard over the years, a backing track to so many montages in so many movies and TV shows, a show-stopper in the repertoires of so many artists in so many genres, that it can be a jolt to track the concept back and listen to Leonard Cohen singing Hallelujah in its genesis.

He voices the song with a jaunty gravitas, like an Old Testament prophet holding court, and the arrangements now seem eccentric: a plodding bass upfront, a rhythm guitar that stutters like gunfire, a Hallelujah chorus of Gospel crooners who pause exquisitely at one point, catch their breath, and majestically reconvene.

In retrospect, while the song’s multitudes of interpreters typically sing Hallelujah with a liturgical reverence, Cohen doesn’t sing it that way at all.

Unjustly stereotyped as maudlin and depressing, his music is actually shot through with pitch-black humour, showcased here in the way he declaims, “but you don’t really care for music, do you?”

But the beauty of the song is that it can be sung as a pure and simple hymn, or as a raw and earthy ballad of lust, and no version needs to hold the original version sacred.

This is the only song I can think of that is so safe in its world, that it can survive an attack by an aspirant Pop Idol intact, and can even emerge with its dignity unsullied after being smothered with strings that drip like melted cheese.

I’ve never heard a version of Hallelujah that didn’t bring tears to my eyes for some reason, and even the wrong reason can be forgiven, because, well, “you don’t really care for music, do you?”

But some versions are better than others.

Which begs the question: what is the greatest cover version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah? What is the most emotionally intense version? What is the most Operatic version? What is the most Titanic version? What is the most seductive version? What is the sweetest version? What is the most soulful version? What is the most Gleeful version? What is the most rosy-tinted, delirious, crazy-in-the-head version? What is the dreamiest, drowsiest, sexiest, brassiest version?

I don’t know.

But I keep discovering new versions, and I keep falling in love with them, and I keep wanting to evangelise them to the world, because this is the Song of Songs, perhaps the greatest pop song ever written, and I, for one, can never grow tired of it, no matter how often it spins and sways and dances around in my head.

Thank you King David, thank you Leonard Cohen, and thank you, Hallelujah.

*My gratitude to Nechama Brodie, 88 Kilos of Sunshine, and Matt du Plessis for introducing me to new versions that have quickly joined the ranks of my favourites.

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88 Kilos of Sunshine…a baritone, an electric guitar, a Hallelujah

By gussilber Posted in Music

8 comments on “Song of Songs: Is Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah the Greatest Pop Song Ever Written?

  1. Allison Crowe’s performance of Hallelujah does it for me. It’s the version that Hollywood found too sexy, too emotional and too beautiful (for The Watchmen): Really, though, as you’re saying, it’s a song with a multitude of great interpretations. And as a song it’s easily withstood the less than ideal treatments.

  2. Jeff Buckley does a very intense version. I’ll search for more, but will always come back to Cohen. The irony he brings to the lyric is tremendous. In all his work, the words lead the song. I find so often with other artists it is the other way around.

  3. So true…the irony in the lyrics is lost in so many versions. And the erotic undertow as well. I wonder if there are any duets around? Would be interesting to hear male and female singing it together.

  4. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed reading this post (and following the links).I am the world’s No.1 fan of ‘Hallelujah’, but am ashamed to admit that the first time I Really Heard It (as opposed to sort of heard it) was when I took my kids to see ‘Shrek’ and was felled by Rufus Wainwright’s version. Of course, being the hipster that I am, I have so moved on. On the subject of which, you have obviously not heard the 1843 version by Clive of India, from whom Cohen drew his inspiration.

  5. Thank you, Jane-Anne! My children, weary of all the Hallelujah, are always asking me why I keep playing that Shrek song. I will explore the Clive of India connection…and then of course there is Handel, who started it all!

  6. Hey Gus, Man Of Mystery. Or at any rate Of Many Parts, to us cyberignorami. I was proud enough to have discovered your Twitters; now I meet this whole rich extra lode. Hadn’t wholly realised, direct instruction notwithstanding, quite how holy Hallelujah rates to you, and others. Bit embarrassed that my second response was to observe the tortured character of the oo-ya rhymes. On the other hand (1) my first response was indeed “beautiful” — that was Nechama’s version — and (2) the oo-yas are tortured, holy or not. Just caught up on various of your other versions; I’m now stronger on the beauty and more forgiving of the torture. Puzzled by Clive of India, who incidentally is unlikely, between time in India and later time in disfavour, to have ever heard the Handel interpretation. Mooi skoot. Keep going.

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