I find the greatest beauty in things that hold different meanings to different people. Things that speak to our shared human experience, but yet contain something unique for each person.
In 1984 Leonard Cohen released Hallelujah. Little came of it until John Cale did a cover, giving his own interpretation. John’s version led in turn to Jeff Buckley creating the probably most famous cover of the song. When Buckley died a few years later his cover became a classic, even making Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time at #264.
That was just the beginning. In the 19 years since then the song has been covered by artists from every genre, each giving it their own shape. Covers on YouTube have millions of views, and now many more than Rolling Stone consider Hallelujah one of the greatest songs.
The minor fall, the major lift
I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
For many people the song is a modern hymn, full of religious hope and reverence. It is a praise to God and all His mystery, majesty, and love. Allison Crowe’s version flows with her belief, even changing one of the lyrics from “holy dove” to “Holy Ghost”.
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah
Others took it the other direction, making a highly sexual song about love, lust, and consummation. Buckley described his version of the song as a “hallelujah to the orgasm.” Cohen’s original version appears in the movie Watchmen during a very NSFW sex scene where the two characters are freeing themselves through their passions.
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
And in the middle of these interpretations is an exaltation of the sheer aching joy of being alive. Of all the wonder and heartbreak and hope over just how fragile and precious life is as we try to find our way within it.
hal·le·lu·jah – An expression of worship or rejoicing
Hallelujah is all these things. It becomes something different for each artist who performs it, and means something different to each person who hears it. It’s an incredible song, and an incredible piece of art.
I’ve made a Hallelujah YouTube playlist of some of the different covers I mention here if you want to compare them side by side. You may also want to check out The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”, which explores the history and many strange tales surrounding the song.
I’ll close with one of my favorite versions. I love it because it brings several artists together where you can see each of their different voices and approaches blending into one, beautiful arrangement. The casual set juxtaposed with the soaring song just makes it all the more powerful.
Whether you see a God in it or not, the desire to rejoice remains.