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Leonard Cohen’s honest thoughts on his ultimate anthem ‘Hallelujah’

‘Hallelujah’ isn’t so much a love song as it is a song about love and a simple declaration to all other artists who would try to cling to its coat tails: why bother? Heralding from an album entitled Various Positions, the song tackles love in a more encompassing way than just about any other song has ever managed.

Written in the classic gospel timing of twelve-eight time and strewn with meta-references to musical structure, the song itself sings of a pious devotion to love, which is imbued by the religious metaphors that run throughout. This all amounts to an anthem that lifts love to rarefied heights and imparts music itself with a certain Godly hymnal salvation and its ability to offer a cathartic cleansing to a weary heart. He may well have been a poet first and a musician second, but ‘Hallelujah’ is undoubtedly his ode to sonic deliverance; even the exultant chorus is placed between personal hardships.

This structural motif is also something that Bob Dylan spoke of when he praised the song: “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 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.”

Such an opus is a measure of a lifetime’s worth of study in matters of the heart that only someone as scholarly in love as Cohen could manage. Throughout his career, he poured himself into the depths of relations with zealous devotion, and ‘Hallelujah’ is the sound of a lifetime wrung out in song. From the pages of poetry that he poured over, tomes of academia, sacred texts, second-hand tales, drunken scribbles on the back of toilet doors and his own experiential wisdom; he absorbed it all and did with it what fellow poet Stevie Smith claimed all great artists do, “Take what he did not make and makes of it something that only he can.”

When he spoke to Ralph Benmergui on CBC back in 1993, Cohen spoke of the sincerity of the song and its country origins. “It’s true,” he said, “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 multitudes, which is why 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?”.

To which Cohen replies: “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 that he speaks of is also brought out in the meta sense that he wrote around eighty verses for the song originally and introduced them as and when into his live renditions as if to prove the fact that the song, like love itself, could never be mastered. This, however, also means that it can come into its own in transcendent ways when it is needed, as Cohen told the Guardian: “I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it,” but when the time is right, “It seems to call down some beneficial energy in the face of catastrophes.”

Prior to one of his evolving live renditions in Warsaw in 1985, when the city was facing catastrophe itself, Cohen introduced his ultimate anthem by saying: “Since I’ve been here, many people have asked me what I thought about just about everything there is in this veil of tears. I don’t know that answers to anything. I just come here to sing these songs that have been inspired by something that I hope is deeper and bigger than myself, but I have nothing to say about the way that Poland is governed… It is not for a stranger to comment. I know that there is an eye that watches all of us, there is a judgement that weighs everything we do and before this great force that is greater than any government, I stand in awe and I kneel in respect, and it is to this great judgement that I dedicate ‘Hallelujah’.”

This notion of placing the nitty-gritty personal amid a glossy and grand overture is ultimately where his masterpiece triumphs. In the same way that both Dylan and Cohen claimed it was larger than itself, the song seems to have been fished from the ether in the same way that Hoagy Carmichael celebrated when he remarked: “And then it happened, that queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me. Maybe I hadn’t written it all. The recollection of how, when and where it all happened became vague as the lingering strains hung in the rafters in the studio. I wanted to shout back at it, ‘maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you’.”

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