Guy Brandon, 24 November 2016
It’s been a little more than two weeks since the death of Leonard Cohen, one of the most celebrated and remarkable artists of our time. Cohen was a man of diverse talents, a poet, painter and novelist as well as the singer-songwriter known for his gravelly delivery and his dark and melancholy but beautifully articulate music.
If there is one song that sums up the man ‘born with the gift of a golden voice’ (as he ironically described himself in ‘Tower of Song’), it must be ‘Hallelujah’. Although it attracted little interest when first released in 1984, the song has since been covered by over 300 artists including Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright, and popularised through countless TV shows and films.
Cohen struggled to write the song, originally penning some 80 verses before settling on the handful that have become famous. Ordained as a Buddhist monk whilst still considering himself an observant Jew, he included numerous references from the Bible – Saul, David, Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah – and explores the ‘holy and the broken’ of the Hallelujah, suggesting encounter with, and withdrawal of, God’s spirit. The song seamlessly blends the spiritual and the profane, dealing with the highs and lows of spiritual life as well as the best and ugliest aspects of human relationship – as David’s own life did. It is a hail to both the religious and ‘secular’ Hallelujahs of life, as Cohen called them, interleaving religious and sexual imagery and blurring the line between them to the point of almost complete ambiguity. Hallelujah is, of course, a Hebrew word, meaning ‘Praise Yah[weh]’: the title itself is arguably simultaneously honouring to God and blasphemous. Even the music that underpins the lyrics moves between one mood and the next, mirroring the themes of despair and ecstasy (‘the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and major lift’).
In referencing the highs and lows of spiritual and human relationship, of the most profound connection and deepest loneliness, 'Hallelujah' captures universal realities. It invites conversation about faith and spirituality without being fundamentally religious in nature, despite the allusions to biblical characters. In doing so, it functions as a spiritual Rorschach test, as other writers have commented. Listeners interpret it in the light of their own experience and take from it the meaning most natural to them.
For Christians, there are as many responses as there are interpretations of a Rorschach blot. Perhaps most notably, there is the challenge to resist the temptation to spiritualise the profane, and to profane the sacred, whilst paradoxically recognising the sacred in the profane.
There is also the song’s closing sentiment, which echoes the message of the Book of Job: ‘And even though it all went wrong // I’ll stand before the Lord of Song // With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.’
Leonard Cohen, September 21, 1934 – November 7, 2016