Biblically inspired, but with clear sexual innuendos, the song has had the strange destiny of becoming very famous long after its initial release, thanks to a series of cover versions.
HALLELUJAH is a song by Leonard Cohen, first featured in the album Various Positions (1984).
Religious themes are often found in popular music, first of all as a result of the influence of gospel and church hymns on the development of folk and blues in the south of the US. In addition, the ecstatic state of performing or listening to music is often compared to a religious experience. Cohen’s atypical approach to the sacred can be explained from the above-mentioned point of views but it can also connect to his Jewish origin and familiarity with the Old Testament.
The textual analysis will first consider the original lyrics, as featured on the Various Positions album and later will briefly describe some of the alternative ones.
Cohen himself has declared having written and circulated several alternative verses (Ratcliff 1999: 132). Often performed live, his version of the song differs from the original recording. The refrain consists of the word “Hallelujah” sung several times, and is the only consistent element in all versions.
Hallelujah means “praise God” and has been used widely in religious hymns and prayers. The main images of the song are biblical. There are references to the story of Samson and Delilah (“She broke your throne, and she cut your hair”) and to that of King David and Bathsheba (“Your faith was strong but you needed proof, you saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you”). Both stories are connected to sensual relationships and betrayals, which might also be the main theme of the song. Some more ordinary statements (“I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you”) and questions (“But you don’t really care for music, do you?”) seem to be addressing an ex-lover (“And even though, it all went wrong”). In the first verse, Cohen sings “The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift” echoed in the chord sequence which goes from F to G to Am to F again (the song is in the key of C). In live performances, Cohen has often sung a completely different set of verses, which verged more on the relational/sexual (“Yeah but I remember, yeah when I moved in you, and the holy dove, she was moving too, yes every single breath that we drew was Hallelujah” as sung on Leonard Cohen Live in Concert, 1994). In the latest version, available on the Live in London (2009) album, Cohen mixes the first two verses of the studio album with verses from the 1994 version, considerably extending the length of the song to 7’20”). In concerts, he usually mentions the place where he is performing in the sentence “I didn’t come here in … just to fool you.”.
The first version of the song is stripped down to a few tracks of synthesizers and drums, while Cohen’s voice is joined by a female choir in the chorus. The song is in twelve-eight. Part of the success of the song is due to the plurality of interpretations which the lyrics open up with, and to their resolving in a nearly religious hymn-like chorus. The word “hallelujah” is sung over a C/Am alternate change, which keeps it suspended until the final resolution to the chord of G (with the voice closing on the tonic).
The song seems to be an interesting example of the way certain logics of appropriations and constructions of meaning work within popular culture. In addition, the combination of sexual and religious images makes the song very elusive in terms of meanings, and therefore also makes it adaptable to a variety of contextual interpretations and uses.
The first artist to cover it was John Cale in 1991 on the I’m Your Fan Leonard Cohen tribute album and later on a live album, followed by Jeff Buckley, whose version was included in the album Grace (1994). Buckley’s version, partly inspired by Cale, became the canon for a series of subsequent performers. Lately, participants in TV pop music contests have adopted the song: Alexandra Burke for her debut album Overcome (2009) and Susan Boyle recorded it for her The Gift (2010). The film Shrek sees the protagonist singing the song (as performed by Rufus Wainwright in the soundtrack CD and by John Cale in the film itself). Fans have variously responded to the sudden proliferation of cover versions and discourses surrounding the purported authenticity of them have arisen on various social media.
Vocals, Guitar: Leonard Cohen
Songwriting: Leonard Cohen
Producer: John Lissauer
Length: 4:34 (Album version/Single edit)
- Leonard Cohen. “Hallelujah”, Hallelujah, 1984, CBS, A-4918, Europe (7″/Single).
- Leonard Cohen. “Hallelujah”, Various Positions, 1984, Columbia, 465569 2, UK/Europe/US (CD/Album).
- Leonard Cohen. “Hallelujah”, Cohen Live – Leonard Cohen In Concert, 1994, Columbia, Col 477171 2, UK/Europe (CD/Album).
- Leonard Cohen. “Hallelujah”, Live In London, 2009, Columbia, 88697405022, Europe (2xCD/Album).
- Ratcliff, Maurice: The Complete Guide to the Music of Leonard Cohen. London: Omnibus 1999.
- Artist homepage: http://www.leonardcohen.com/ [07.11.2011].
About the Author
All contributions by Giacomo Bottà
Giacomo Bottà: “Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen)”. In: Songlexikon. Encyclopedia of Songs. Ed. by Michael Fischer, Fernand Hörner and Christofer Jost, http://www.songlexikon.de/songs/hallelujah, 02/2010 [revised 10/2013].Print