Ah I don't believe you'd like it,
You wouldn't like it here.
There ain't no entertainment
and the judgements are severe.
—Leonard Cohen, “Waiting for the Miracle”
Of all of Leonard Cohen’s songs, “Hallelujah” is the best known. There isn’t an American Idol contestant who doesn’t dream of overdoing the chorus. It was used as a soundtrack by a Canadian skater at the PyeongChang Olympics and, for some reason, played during the COVID memorial ceremony in Washington, D.C. At the end of his life, Cohen joked that there ought to be a moratorium on including the anthem in film.
The song's success was hard-won. Cohen was already a polished writer in his late 30s when he decided to try his luck at popular music. Although well-received in Europe, he remained a D-lister in the U.S. until the release of his eighth studio album, 1988’s I’m Your Man. Not a typical career trajectory for an entertainer—or a song. “Hallelujah” was a track on his preceding album, 1984’s Various Positions, which Cohen’s label Columbia Records refused to release, saying, “We know you are great, but don't know if you are any good.” He went with a minor label and gave “Hallelujah” to Bob Dylan to perform live. The song languished in semi-obscurity for another decade until, one cover version after another, it worked its way to the top of the charts.
The opening stanza is sublime:
Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah
Cohen imagines the biblical warrior-king challenging an indifferent audience with otherworldly melodies, baffled by his ability to create music pleasing to the Almighty. Cohen’s themes are familiar—faith, inspiration, despair—but the uplift of the first stanza is surprising given the broodiness of so much of his work.
In the next stanza, he introduces another favorite subject, sexual desire, in the figure of Bathsheba, the future mother of David's son Solomon:
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her
In a wild departure from the biblical story—in which David coerces Bathsheba and has her husband murdered to cover up the affair—Cohen reconceives Bathsheba as a proof of God’s existence and favor. This incongruity may explain why it took him nearly a decade to complete the song. He composed perhaps hundreds of stanzas, keeping only about eighty. Cohen recalls once kneeling in his underwear in his hotel room and banging his head against the floor, struggling to craft the perfect verse.
There is a tradition among performers covering the song to pick from the unused lyrics, maybe tweaking the language to leave their own mark. In this way “Hallelujah” resembles folk songs, which are malleable and exist in myriad forms. Yet regardless of their innovations, cover artists always retain the exultant first stanza.
The multiplicity of stanzas is both a wonderful creative reservoir and testimony to Cohen’s lack of conviction. He described the mood of the song as that of acceptance: “You look around and you see the world that is impenetrable, that cannot be made sense of. So you either raise your fist or you say ‘hallelujah!’” Cohen was a spiritual man, immersed in his own Jewish tradition but always interested in the faith of other peoples. He excelled in songs of damnation, like “Everybody Knows” and “The Future.” These anthems of a fallen age were constructed as perfect self-contained units.
That’s not the case with “Hallelujah,” in which David is given a beautiful woman as a kind of theophany. As hardcore Cohen fans know, the meaning of “Hallelujah” is revealed in the third stanza, when the narrator contemplates taking the Lord’s name in vain during lovemaking. Jeff Buckley called the song “the hallelujah of the orgasm.”
Cohen’s attempt to sanctify carnal desire rings hollow—unsurprisingly, given that he never married and refused to dedicate himself to one woman. He may have felt “love for workers in song,” but he also had a pathological fear of commitment.
We see this in the second half of the second stanza, in which domestic life is treated with revulsion:
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 “Hallelujah,” the kitchen is the place of violent emasculation. The ambivalence introduced by the Samson and Delilah allusion undercuts his goal of sanctifying desire.
Cohen’s lyrics are often darker than they first appear. Brides may swoon to “I’m Your Man” but the song tells of a dysfunctional relationship. “Dance Me to the End of Love” is another reception favorite, but the number is inspired by musicians forced to perform during the executions in Nazi death camps. Likewise, “Hallelujah” may have the 12/8 timing and major chords that work so well for gospel music and wedding processionals, but it’s ultimately a story of fear and failure: “I did my best, it wasn't much.” Cohen dedicated it to “the broken.”
Sunday Times critic Bryan Appleyard observed that among all the verses available to cover artists, “Only two possibilities predominated: either this was a wistful, ultimately feel good song or it was an icy, bitter commentary on human relations.” The first, crowd-pleasing possibility only lasted one-and-a-half stanzas, but it’s amplified by the eternal desire to lose oneself in a chorus of hallelujahs. The rest of the lyrics attest to the author’s inability to live in a state of grace.
This is unfortunate. Audiences long for a serious, modern poem about the Creator blessing human desire. “Hallelujah” could have been a story celebrating love and the flourishing of civilization. After all, Solomon, the eventual fruit of David and Bathsheba’s union, represents the apogee of Hebrew culture and is traditionally held to be the author of arguably the greatest erotic poem of the ancient world, the Song of Songs.
The song’s incongruity with its source material creates a disconnect between its form and content. Bathsheba was married to Uriah, a faithful soldier in the Israelite army, when David had her brought to the palace to couple with him. When she became pregnant, David sent Uriah to the frontline to be killed. God punished them, killing the child Bathsheba delivers. The distance between Cohen’s Bathsheba and the Bible’s renders his ambivalent “Hallelujahs” trite.
Jeff Buckley’s version is arguably superior for its allusion to Uriah’s fate:
All I ever learned from love
Is how to shoot someone who outdrew ya
Nevertheless, the audiences are not wrong about “Hallelujah”—they rarely are. What they hear is the promise of transcendence and redemption. They want to learn the secret of David’s chord. The failure to deliver it is all Cohen’s.
Katya Sedgwick is a writer in the San Francisco Bay area.
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Image by Rama licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.