Review: The Holy Or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’ -

Review: The Holy Or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’

By Alan Light


The pleasures of this modest, original book are as unexpected as its subject: the miraculous (and ongoing) resurrection of the 28-year-old Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah. When Cohen first recorded it, his record label refused to release it. “What is this?” said the president of CBS Records when he listened to it. “This isn’t pop music . . . this is a disaster.” Since then, of course, Hallelujah has become one of the most covered songs in music history, a one-size-fits-all hymn that can express both doubt and reassurance.

The song languished in obscurity until Jeff Buckley recorded his own intense, angelic-erotic version, which became his signature number. After his death, Hallelujah was taken up by a whole rainbow of artists, from Rufus Wainwright, Bono and Justin Timberlake, to Bob Dylan and Céline Dion. At the opening of the 2010 Winter Olympics, k.d. lang nailed her lucid, world-embracing version. With its simple, seductive melody and lyrics that move between the sexual and the spiritual, the song can cast a spell in any context. “Those who want or need it to serve as a hymn, a balm, can find that sense of soaring grace,” the author writes, “and those who respond to its sense of struggle and confusion can present that as the song’s backbone. There’s no ‘right way’ to sing Hallelujah.” Light, the former editor of Spin magazine, does a deft, unsentimental job of tracking how a little masterpiece of a song crested the waves of the music industry to become a modern anthem. Wonder if this has anything to do with Cohen’s job as a counsellor at a summer camp in the Laurentians, where he first learned to play for others? Now it’s a camp song sung around the world.

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