There's a song that Bono and Shrek agree on?
There certainly is: Leonard Cohen's gorgeous ''Hallelujah.'' In his new book, 'The Holy or the Broken', journalist Alan Light tracks the tune's improbable rise from obscure ballad to pop culture classic.
You might know it as the love song from Shrek. Or maybe as that mournful music from The O.C. Either way, you’ve heard ”Hallelujah.” Written by Leonard Cohen, it’s one of the most performed rock songs in history, covered by Bob Dylan, Bon Jovi, Regina Spektor, Justin Timberlake, the Canadian Tenors featuring Celine Dion, and scores of contestants on American Idol and The X Factor. It has become such a staple at open-mic nights that L.A.’s famous singer-songwriter hangout the Hotel Café has a sign posted on its soundboard that reads ”Please do not play ‘Hallelujah.”’ Cohen first recorded the song for 1984’s Various Positions, but Columbia Records rejected the album, forcing it onto an indie label, where it was largely ignored. So how did the tune climb from relative obscurity to ”Free Bird”-level ubiquity?
Rock journalist Alan Light makes that story feel fresh and compelling in his new book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of ”Hallelujah.” Starting with Cohen’s original — a heavenly, hymnlike ballad about longing for spirituality and sex — the book traces its revival by such artists as Buckley, whose sudden death at age 30 made his cover of the song all the more poignant, through its breakout success in 2001, when it underscored an emotional moment in Shrek and a memorable VH1 tribute to the victims of 9/11. Today, it has become the go-to pick for all those sad montages on shows like The West Wing, ER, House, One Tree Hill, and The O.C., which loved ”Hallelujah” so much it featured the track in two different season finales.
Even if you already know some of the song’s history, the book’s critical analysis of ”Hallelujah” is more than deep enough to engage you. Though Cohen declined to be interviewed, Light talks with religious experts about the song’s Old Testament references, revealing that Cohen’s image of a woman ”bathing on the roof” comes from the tale of David and Bathsheba. Elsewhere, lesbian country singer Brandi Carlile explains how the song’s themes of religious devotion and forbidden love helped her reconcile her sexuality with her Christian faith. And Rufus Wainwright, who performed ”Hallelujah” on the Shrek soundtrack, confesses that the cover helped him get over his jealousy of Buckley, who worked the same New York clubs Wainwright did.
By now, most people have listened to ”Hallelujah” so often, it’s hard to really hear it anymore. But The Holy or the Broken offers a good reminder of why everyone from Willie Nelson to your mom loves it: Every time you play it, there’s a new way to interpret it. Take Bono, who claims that when Cohen sings about King David, he’s giving credit to the man who helped invent Cohen’s sound. ”He was a harp player and the first God heckler — as well as shouting praises to God, he was also shouting admonishment. ‘Why has thou forsaken me?”’ the U2 frontman explains. ”That’s the beginning of the blues.”