Leonard Cohen said the song represented absolute surrender in a situation you cannot fix or dominate, that sometimes it means saying, ‘I don’t fucking know what’s going on, but it can still be beautiful.’ Alan Light, The Holy or the Broken, quoting guitarist Colin Frangicetto about “Hallelujah”
What does “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) mean? For that matter, which of the multiple versions of the song’s lyrics are we talking about? Covering artists—of which there are hundreds, including John Cale, Jeff Buckley, k.d. lang, Brandi Carlile, and Rufus Wainwright—were allowed by Cohen to choose among many different options.
(For song samples, click on the artists’ names above. For further info regarding “Hallelujah” variations, see this submission to an online forum on the subject.)
Ryan Dombal, Pitchfork, notes that “…the meaning of the song changes depending on how a singer arranges these various verses–Cohen’s original was released when he was 50, and it’s more resigned than Jeff Buckley‘s comparatively lustful and dramatic cover from 1994’s Grace.”
According to Ashley Fetters, The Atlantic, Cohen was “ambiguous about what his ‘Hallelujah,’with its sexual scenery and its religious symbolism, truly ‘meant.’ ‘This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled,’ Cohen has said. ‘But there are moments when we can…reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.'”
In Alan Light‘s 2012 book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah,” he describes one of Jeff Buckley‘s (1966-1997) concert introductions to the tune:
‘It’s not the bottle,’ he said. ‘It’s not the pills. It’s not the face of strangers who will offer you their lines and hot needles. It’s not the time you were together in their place—so perfect, like a second home. And it’s not from the Bible. It’s not from angels. Not from preachers who are chaste and understanding of nothing that is human in this world. It’s for people who are lovers. It’s for people who have been lovers. You are at last somewhere. Until then it’s hallelujah.’
An available book excerpt (Rolling Stone) also provides verse by verse interpretations, including the Biblical references to David (“the baffled king”) as well as Samson and Delilah (“She tied you to a kitchen chair / she broke your throne, she cut your hair”). “Both biblical heroes are brought down to earth, and risk surrendering their authority, because of the allure of forbidden love.”
But the song’s main premise, says Light, occurs in the third verse: “the value, even the necessity of the song of praise in the face of confusion, doubt, or dread.”
‘A blaze of light in every word.’ That’s an amazing line. Every word, holy or broken – this is the fulcrum of the song as Cohen first wrote it. Like our forefathers, and the Bible heroes who formed the foundation of Western ethics and principles, we will be hurt, tested, and challenged. Love will break our hearts, music will offer solace that we may or may not hear, we will be faced with joy and with pain. But Cohen is telling us, without resorting to sentimentality, not to surrender to despair or nihilism. Critics may have fixated on the gloom and doom of his lyrics, but this is his offering of hope and perseverance in the face of a cruel world. Holy or broken, there is still hallelujah.
Eric Liebetrau‘s Boston Globe review of The Holy or the Broken contains this apt summation from Light:
…Ambiguous, evocative words. Faith and uncertainty. Pain and pleasure. A song based in Old Testament language that a teen idol can sing. An erotically charged lyric fit for a Yom Kippur choir or a Christmas collection. Cold. Broken. Holy.