Sunday, January 20, 2013

Shelving: The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah" by Alan Light

If you're game for some pop culture minutiae, Alan Light's The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah traces the song's trajectory from its humble beginnings as a little-known Leonard Cohen song through what has been on of the most covered in the history of pop music.

Full disclosure: I am a "Hallelujah" snob. The first version I ever heard was John Cale's from a live album called Fragments of a rainy Season. I bought it after hearing the studio take on the Basquiat soundtrack, which I couldn't find in any record shop at the time, but I came to prefer that live version, and considered it the "definitive" one, at least in my record collection. I finally heard Jeff Buckley's a few years later and hated it. Hated it. It was bombastic, overblown, and caterwauling. (But let me tell you how I really feel.) A million crappy "Hallelujahs" later, I still hate Buckley's version, but reading Light's book, and I can appreciate it a little more. At least, I can appreciate how one might interpret it as something bigger and grander than it is, when "Hallelujah" to me has always been something broken and bubbling with regret.

In the book, kd lang, one of the song's better interpreters, said: "You know what it's like? It's like that scene in Of Mice and Men where the guy is petting the mouse and he kills it because he loved it so much. It's kind of like that." I think this is the best description of the path the song has taken over its past thirty-or-so years of life I've ever read. Let's leave it at that.


  1. My first Hallelujah was the LC one, and it sounds strange to me when it's not hushed and raspy. I don't like the Buckley one either. Who changed the words, that what I always wondered. The JB one has the bullet line.

  2. I don't know what you look for in a "Hallelujah," but a version by Allison Crowe is my favourite -- raw, emotional, very simple. I think k.d. does a beautiful version, but I think the song is best served by keeping is simple and very real.