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(Credit: Takahiro Kyono)

Music

Leonard Cohen on the irony of 'Hallelujah's' fame

@SamWKemp

There are few songs more recognisable, enduring and cherished than Leonard Cohen’s 1984 single ‘Hallelujah’.

Released on Various Position, the single was far from a hit when it came out, with Cohen only playing it on a few occasions during his supporting tour. But as the years went by, it continued to attract devotees from the world of music, many of whom released covers of the single, including John Cale of The Velvet Underground, Jeff Buckley and KD Lang. Today, the track is so ubiquitous that it’s known by people who have never even heard of its composer.

For Cohen, the success of ‘Hallelujah’ was always faintly ironic. Speaking to Jian Ghomeshi on Q TV, the singer-songwriter gave his views song’s eventual fame: “I was happy that the song was being used, of course. There were certain ironic and amusing sidebars because the record that it came from, which was called Various Positions, that record sony wouldn’t put out – they didn’t think it was good enough. And it had songs like ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’, ‘Hallelujah’, ‘If It Be Your Will’. But it wasn’t considered good enough for the American market and it wasn’t put out, so there was a mild sense of revenge.”

For listeners at the time, Cohen’s efforts felt deliberately impenetrable, the lyrics too vague and ambiguous for pop sensibilities. Next to more melodic tracks like ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’, it sounds undeniably morose, perhaps even nihilistic, so it went unacknowledged for years. But when it did find success many years later, Cohen’s smugness eventually gave way to annoyance. “I was just reading a review of a movie called Watchmen that uses it [‘Hallelujah’], and the reviewer said: ‘can we please have a moratorium on ‘Hallelujah’ in movies and television shows?’, and I kind of feel the same way. I like the song, but I think people ought to stop singing it for a little while.”

While the magic of ‘Hallelujah’ was lost on listeners in the 1980s, there were some who recognised it, namely Bob Dylan, who performed the track live on numerous occasions. The songwriter once said that Cohen didn’t write songs so much as he wrote prayers. Leonard once asked Dylan how long it took him to write his own exploration of the divine ‘I and I’ from his born-again album Infidels. “Fifteen Minutes” came Dylan’s reply. He then asked how long it had taken Cohen to write ‘Hallelujah’: “Ten Years,” he said.

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