The Irony of Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

It started years ago, when Leonard Cohen was still alive; but since his death, there has been an outpouring of “Hallelujah” covers on just about every conceivable medium. With virtually no exception, these tributes miss the point at the heart of of the song.

The interpretation that virtually every cover takes is that this tune is a beautiful expression of devotion to creation, the universe, Gaia, Jesus, or Jehovah. I suspect this approach stems from the use of the title word, which is repeated fifteen or twenty times, depending on how many verses are sung — and the profuse Biblical allusions. Certainly the musical composition lends itself to haunting vocal and choral arrangements.

But consider the words: the usual opening verse  refers to music pleasing thecohen-text-box Lord, but Cohen interjects with something the listener might not expect: “But you don’t really care for music, do you?” Think about how mundane and contrary that statement is.

Most of the other verses in various versions of the song (Cohen said he wrote 83 verses over the years) are about bitter, failed relationships. “I did my best, it wasn’t much, I couldn’t feel so I tried to touch” — that’s the classic male approach to relationships isn’t it? Here is a man who would not put emotion into the relationship, and had a fall-back approach of sex to cure everything. Rather than talk about the relationship or actually love the partner, he used sex to make problems go away; and we know how that goes.

Unlike the Hallelujah chorus in Handel’s Messiah, which is a magnificent hymn of praise to God, Cohen’s  “Hallelujah” is not. Rather it is an ironic comment on the treachery and loss often associated with relationships. And the title and refrain of the song are ironic.

Listen to how Cohen himself sings it. Leonard Cohen Sings “Hallelujah”

Note how he clips the word Hallelujah , yelling cynically in what is obviously a pointed irony.

But, like a kid joining a cult, the song spiraled away from Cohen’s vision. It all went wrong when K.D. Lang crafted her version ( probably based on John Cale’s arrangement that Jeff Barkley peformed) a haunting, beautiful interpretation of the song that led the audience in a whole new direction, one that exploited the musicality of the song and sounded so profoundly lyrical and lovely that audiences have come to hear beauty and exultation without considering the words.

In the beginning, Cohen was a poet who turned to song writing and performing because he knew that unless poets are independently wealthy, they are, without exception, poor.

Because he was a poet first, and a substantial one, he was saying something that we should listen to.

I have listened to the words as I studied them, then sang the song with our chorus and with my quartet. It never fails: when we begin the familiar opening rhythmical chords, people fall into lyrical raptures. You can see eyes widen, hear the “Aw” run through the audience. When I told a friend we were performing it, she said, “Oh, what a beautiful hymn of praise.”

While Cohen’s “Hallelujah” may sound like a modern hymn, it is not. I recently heard a soloist with a professional choir interject “Oh, Jesus” into her improvisation on the refrain, having just sung the somewhat sordid “Baby I’ve been here before, I know this room, I’ve walked this floor . . .”

Then there’s “She tied you to a kitchen chair . . . and from your lips she drew the  Hallelujah.”

Incongruous. Could you sing these words in a church? Not if you have been paying attention.

So what are the Biblical allusions there for?

Gravitas, Baby — they give the subject a dramatic, even tragic, edge. Otherwise, it’s pulp fiction about failed people engaging in sex instead of love.

Did Cohen know what he was doing? Of course. It’s just that the musicians forgot to read the words.

So, remember: irony, people. Irony.


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About riverwriter

Poet, playwright, duplicate bridge player, website designer, cottager, husband, father, grandfather, former athlete, carpenter, computer helper for my friends, theatre designer, backstage polymath, retired teacher of highschool English, drama, art, a baritone singer in a barbershop quartet, who knows what else? wordcurrents is on Facebook: Doug also has a Facebook page, "Incognitio", related to his novels.
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