The Other I

December 23, 2008

A Grown-up’s Hallelujah!

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:31 pm

The Number One Christmas song here in Britain this year is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s iconic Hallelujah!  There is a big debate about just which artist has recorded the best version, and to inform myself about this critical issue, I went to U-tube.  I have now listened to 14 different versions.

What surprises me most is that this song is making it as a Christmas song.  I often do not pay much attention to lyrics, but the only way to find this a soothing merry song is to concentrate solely on the chorus, which consists in its entirety of repeated hypnotic Hallelujahs.

Cohen wrote several versions, one slightly more hopeful than the other.  But neither version is a cuddly love song.  It does not burst with joy but with anguish, with that mixture of total selflessness and self-abnegation that marks an obsessive love you know is destroying you and you can’t let go of.  It’s not the victory song as one goes off to love or war for the first time but the dirge as one is returning with a shattered face, a gutted inside, a dead friend on the stretcher beside you.  The Hallelujah! wrenched from the lover’s lips is shot through with despair and bitterness.

I find it a haunting, terrifying, truthful song.  It’s ostensibly the story of King David’s obsession with Bathsheba that broke his hold on the throne.  But it belongs to every human age.  

It’s a grown-up song, and hearing it sung by the young and still innocent is disconcerting.  Those  who do not yet know that love can be as toxic and bitter as sin swing in a gentle euphoria to the anguish of the exalting Hallelujahs.  It is like watching a baby play with an unexploded grenade.

The most popular version of the song ends in the wreckage of isolated angry meaninglessness:

well, maybe there’s a god above 
“but all i’ve ever learned from love 
was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you 
it’s not a cry that you hear at night 
it’s not somebody who’s seen the light 
it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah

But the version Cohen himself seems to have preferred ends with an existential acceptance, even defiant celebration.  It all went wrong, but that’s how things are.  To life!  Hallelujah!   

“And even though it all went wrong 
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song 
With nothing on my tongue 
But hallelujah!” 

Maybe it’s a Christmas song after all.  A Christmas song for grown-ups who have faced the hopelessness of a shattered love.

 My current favourite cover is at  .  You can listen to Jeff Buckley’s version at  

Or type in Hallelujah on Google.  I think there are 80 covers of the song.


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