It was there when I went to sleep and greeted me when I awoke. While I drove the highway and as I washed the dishes, it played on. It was never grating, the way some songs are when they stick in the mind. No, this one was welcomed always.
My husband and I were at a restaurant a few nights later~~and there it was again, a gift from the musician playing in the adjoining bar. Curious about this song’s coming my way twice in one week, I googled it when I got home.
As I listened to rendition after rendition, I found the melody even more hypnotic. All those minor chords carrying me up the scale and suddenly resolving~~it got me every time. Oh, and that one~word chant of a chorus! It soared and dipped and wove its way deeper into me with each repetition.
After spending more minutes than I had on YouTube, I finally got around to looking up the lyrics. Now, as anyone who’s listened to the music of Leonard Cohen knows, his lyrics can be somewhat cryptic and not a little weird. This song was no different. In deciphering its meaning, however, I recognized an ode to the beauty of life, even amidst the pain.
Cohen, in a 1985 interview in the French music magazine Guitare et Claviers, says that with this song he wanted “to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way but with enthusiasm, with emotion....It's a rather joyous song.”
“It's the notion that there is no perfection,” he continues, “that this is a broken world and we live with broken hearts and broken lives but still…you have to stand up and say hallelujah."
Hallelujah is both the chorus and the title of this haunting piece. The dictionary defines the term as “a shout of joy, praise, or gratitude.” Well, Cohen hallelujahs with the best of ‘em. Using a love affair as his subject, he writes of welcomed hallelujahs, holy hallelujahs, and those that are seemingly wrung out of us. “Cold and broken” hallelujahs, too, get their due.
“All the perfect and broken Hallelujahs have an equal value,” Cohen asserts in the 1985 interview, and his last verse reflects this.
“And even though it all went wrong/I'll stand before the Lord of Song/With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”
What if we learned to greet it all with hallelujah? For whether you believe in intelligent design, evolution, or some harmonious combination of the two, isn’t it miraculous that we are alive, here on a tiny planet twirling within an inconceivably immense universe?
Whether life pleases us in a given moment or not~~hallelujah! In moments of pleasure and those of pain~~hallelujah! Some folks even manage a hallelujah when confronted with the seemingly tragic. Should that one day be me, I suspect I’d experience the full range of human emotion, just as we two~leggeds seem meant to do. I hope, though, that I’d eventually come to rest on a simple, a humble hallelujah.
After listening to this song many, many times and writing this essay, I may never get Hallelujah out of my brain. And that’s just fine by me.
May you each find your own unique hallelujah, within the particulars of your own precious lives.
And here's some more...
Rufus Wainright, Alexandra Burke, K. D. Lang, Sheryl Crow, Bon Jovi, Alison Crowe.
And though Leonard Cohen’s version is not a favorite~~his genius is in the writing~~here’s his rendition of Hallelujah.
And though few singers sing all the verses, here are the lyrics in their entirety. Give them some time~~they do make sense!
Lastly, I share comments from two musician/singer friends who I asked for help in understanding just why this song moved me so.
First, from Peggy KempHenry, a classically trained musician who’s lovely inside and out and has a singing voice that is pure, sweet perfection~~
“I have just had a Lovely hour plus listening to 11 renditions of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and thinking about why it has such a "pull". For me, it is the strength of the "hook" that makes it so enduring. It is basically a CHANT...on one word. Chants have been used in all times and places ~ they unify, consolidate, bring together, under~score commonality, repeat, repeat (think "mantra" and how it allows the mind to still down to one thing). Three lines of only 3 notes, with the 4th line resolving down with two more notes....Very Simple, Very Repetitive.
The verse is similar, using only 4 notes in an almost spoken quality, repeating without Any musical interest, then rising out of that Dirge with an ascending musical scale ~ it can't Help but Lift! It is under~stated genius.
However, i still think that what makes that song so "stick~in~the~brain" is its' chorus ~ this Simple One~Word Chant.
I listened to versions by KDLang, BonJovi, AlisonCrowe, AlterBridge, TheAccafellas, DamienLeith, RufussWainwright, AlexandraBurke, and of course SherylCrow. I liked SC's Accompaniment the best, but my favorite Singer was Wainwright. However, i STILL didn't get all the words, so i brought up AlexandraBurke's version because the lyrics were written on the screen. I really enjoyed her performance, altho i think it was for some competition and was heavily "worked" and orchestrated. But i FINALLY got all the words and understood "There might be a God above / but all i ever learned from love / was how to shoot somebody who out~drew ya." Which now i KNOW, but still don't understand....
From just a "singers" point of view, KDLang has got it all over everyone else vocally ~ but that's her strong~suit : she is the best technical singer i've heard since Barbara Streisand, and a consummate performer. But she is so good that i find myself listening to the magic of her technique and her ability to completely merge/submerge into a song,.... and the actual Song slides into third place!”
And now from Monica Wood, another multi~talent, dulcet~toned beauty, whose singing I could~~and have~~listened to all night! And by the way, Monica is also a published author with a memoir due out next summer. She frequently adds comments on this blog, and you can find out more about her, and read an excerpt from her new book at www.monicalwood.com.
Oh, yes, this one’s a killer. Here’s why, I think. The chords rise up the scale, and then, instead of heading where they seem to be going, they “resolve” just before they’re actually ready. (this isn’t very technical, more an emotional response to the way this song is constructed.) It’s the same way a storyteller might build suspense, and because this is mostly minor chords to begin with (which gets any human heart in the melancholy mode), that added technique of resolving in an unexpected place just adds to what you’re already feeling. Also, the way the lyrics are set up, you have a small pile~up of syllables at the end of certain lines, and again, that echoes that most fundamental of all human knowledge: we do not have time to complete our journey. Both music and lyric seems to be in cahoots to reinforce this subliminally. I don’t know anyone who has not gone solemn when listening to this. The words don’t even make much sense, but you throw in a hallelujah and it becomes, just to put the frosting on the cake, rife with religious overtones.
So, that’s all from here. For those of you who’ve stuck it out this far~~Hallelujah! Of course, for those who didn’t feel so inclined~~Hallelujah, too!