Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Hallelujah - Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is a complex, nearly indecipherable musical riddle that baffled even its composer. Originally released as a synth-laden dirge on 1984's Various PositionsCohen spent years tinkering with the track during live performances in a relentless pursuit to unlock its full potential. By now, "Hallelujah" has become a cultural staple, covered by dozens of artists, most notably John Cale and Jeff Buckley (playing in the music loop as well as in the current Winter Olympics). Others to take up the hymn are Bon Jovi, Rufus Wainwright, Regina Spektor, Michael McDonald, Norah Jones, Justin Timberlake, k.d. lang, Bono and Willie Nelson.

The fascinating story of how "Hallelujah" transformed from disappointing album track to legendary status is the stuff of a myriad of articles from Rolling Stone to the New Yorker. It's interesting how popular the song has become despite our outwardly secular world. Cohen's song, is, after all, a mash-up of references to the biblical King David. The opening line evokes the tradition of David as a musician and composer "Now I heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord." But throughout Cohen's song, David the musician shares the stage with David the lover/adulterer as in a retelling of 2 Samuel 11-12: "Your faith was strong but you needed proof. You saw her bathing roof. Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew ya."

Cohen freely and creatively peppers his retelling of David's life with other biblical stories; Samson's relationship with Delilah, for instance, exercises a profound influence on Cohen's song, though when it comes to David's encounter with Bathsheba, Cohen's David is not the initiator of wrongdoing; he is a victim of forces beyond his own control:

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you.
She tied you to a kitchen chair.
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair.
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.

In these stunning lines, the roles have been reversed and Bathsheba is the main actor, while everything happens to a passive David. It's a twist on Bathsheba more characteristic of Delilah, but you get the point.

While the reference to scripture is undeniable (this is not simply a symbolic tract), the song’s switch to first-person speech ("I did my best, it wasn’t much. I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch") make it a personal confession wrapped in a powerful narrative that establishes an empathy that we couldn't otherwise share with the biblical David. Our vision of David, the giant slayer, is that of the overwhelming 17 foot statue by Michelangelo – Godlike in stature. Cohen's David instead is just about an unremarkable guy in a remarkable situation. 

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