I wrote the following as a diary entry a few months ago, probably on hearing another lazy cover version, but didn’t publish it – and suddenly this week I have had several requests that we sing “Hallelujah” as a tribute.
We’re not going to sing it in choir. It’s a beautiful song. I love the sweeping compound rhythm, the melody that pushes upward step by step before reaching a peak and subsiding, the chorus of a single word repeated four times. The music is not fancy, but it’s far from pedestrian.
I’m not possessive or prescriptive about songs I love; I am not anti-cover-version. Jeff Buckley sings Hallelujah perfectly, with pain and reverence, longing and gratitude, desire and fulfilment.
What I hate (not sitting on the fence here) is people singing a song without listening to the words, without thinking about the emotions. Leonard Cohen never wrote a careless word and the recent adoption of Hallelujah as a default audition song seems disrespectful.
Each verse of this song paints a very specific picture with resonances of the Old Testament, the ancient stories shared by Jews and Christians, but overlaid with an intimacy that makes it clear that the shout of Hallelujah is as much about physical ecstasy as religious awe; and the hushed Hallelujah is the word of wonder whispered in the afterglow. God can be found through music and desire, he is saying; these things can take us to spiritual heights and depths.
David, who in the first verse finds the secret chord that heals King Saul and pleases the Lord, in the second verse is overwhelmed with desire which leads to his undoing. It conflates the stories of David who saw Bathsheba bathing and wanted her so badly that he sent her husband off to die on the front line, and Samson, whose legendary strength was lost when he submitted to Delilah and she cut his hair.
This song is absolutely not (another religious borrowing) an anthem. It is a song from an individual to another individual revealing complex emotions. It is not something that a block of people can feel all at once or express all at once. I have heard choirs of children sing it, which feels quite wrong even if the most explicit lines are edited out.
There are enough poor versions of this lovely song in the world – we won’t add to them.
If you would like to see a brilliant choir version of a lesser-known Cohen song watch this video of a flashmob in Sydney.