It’s right up there on the list of songs you’d love to see live—Leonard Cohen humming out a folk hymn for the ages as the bittersweet beauty of ‘Hallelujah’ basks wherever it’s being played like an excision. It’s a ballad of unparalleled depth that says to all other songs pertaining to love: “Why the hell bother?”
As Bob Dylan said of the anthem that gave every songwriter a shake-up when it was released in 1984: “It’s a beautifully constructed melody that steps up, evolves, and slips back, all in quick time. But this song has a connective chorus, which when it comes in [it] has a power all of its own. The ‘secret chord’ and the point-blank I-know-you-better-than-you-know-yourself aspect of the song has plenty of resonance for me.”
That resonant element is universal. “It’s true,” Cohen said himself when reflecting on the Various Positions track, “The lyric speaks about something that is true. I can’t make out the lyric to a lot of pop stuff.”
Nevertheless, the truth to the song remains liminal and every line seems to contain filigreed multitudes, the sort that seem lived-in, which is why Ralph Benmergui asked: “You say, ‘love is not a victory march, just a cold and broken hallelujah… I’m not sure if love terrifies you or if it’s a salvation?”.
Cohen’s response was typically poetic: “Well, I don’t think there is anybody that goes into that pit well-armed, and I don’t think there is anybody who masters love.” Before offering up one of the most peculiar analogies of his career, “I think the heart is always cooking like shish kebab and everybody’s breast is crackling and bubbling. Nobody gets on top of this thing because you’ve got to surrender, and surrender means that you’ve got to give up and nobody wants to give up.”
This ever-evolving nature of love is reflected in the ever-evolving nature of the song itself. Eighty verses make up the original manuscript and they float in and out on whims when Cohen croons it out live.
At Glastonbury, back in 2008, Cohen offered up one of its finest outings. The bumper edition of the doo-wopping ‘Hallelujah’ even had couplets like, “I’ve told the truth, I did not come all the way to Glastonbury to fool you,” which were met with rapturous delight and proved the bard might have been spiritual but never took things too seriously.
Above all, this performance is a thing of beauty. Check it out below.