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The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah"by Alan Light
In the nearly 30 years since Leonard Cohen first recorded "Hallelujah," it has gone from a largely overlooked album track to one of the most covered songs in recent history. Rock editor and journalist Alan Light traces the improbable trajectory of this now-infamous song from its painstaking birth (it took years to compose) to its enduring ubiquity. The Holy or the Broken focuses mostly on the bard of Montreal and the late singer-songwriter responsible for its most well-known (and perhaps most stirring) rendition.
Since the turn of the millennium, "Hallelujah" has appeared in films, on television programs, as part of globe-spanning tribute concerts, in Olympic coverage, and, most recently, on nearly every conceivable incarnation of reality TV singing competition ever to grace the airwaves. With hundreds of available covers, "Hallelujah" has been performed by everyone (after Cohen, John Cale, and Jeff Buckley) from Rufus Wainwright, k. d. lang, Regina Spektor, and Bono to Bon Jovi, Justin Timberlake, Willie Nelson, Neil Diamond, Susan Boyle, and even Michael Bolton. Following brief biographical backgrounds on both Cohen and Buckley, Light follows the mania that has often accompanied the song, interviewing dozens of musicians for whom the song proved pivotal, poignant, or commercially lucrative.
Composing an entire book about a single song is a lofty endeavor, but Light's work is well-researched and often interesting. In addition to reporting upon the nearly exhausting number of cover versions, Light also considers the lyrical complexity and musical qualities that have made the song so appealing across so wide a spectrum. Apparently now somewhat of a regular at weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, and church services, Light outlines the song's allure in both spiritual and secular contexts. If you've ever referred to "Hallelujah" as "the Shrek song," this is probably a book that you should consider required reading posthaste.
Synopses & Reviews
“A venerated creator. An adored, tragic interpreter. An uncomplicated, memorable melody. Ambiguous, evocative words. Faith and uncertainty. Pain and pleasure.”
Today, “Hallelujah” is one of the most-performed rock songs in history. It has become a staple of movies and television shows as diverse as Shrek and The West Wing, of tribute videos and telethons. It has been covered by hundreds of artists, including Bob Dylan, U2, Justin Timberlake, and k.d. lang, and it is played every year at countless events—both sacred and secular—around the world.
Yet when music legend Leonard Cohen first wrote and recorded “Hallelujah,” it was for an album rejected by his longtime record label. Ten years later, charismatic newcomer Jeff Buckley reimagined the song for his much-anticipated debut album, Grace. Three years after that, Buckley would be dead, his album largely unknown, and “Hallelujah” still unreleased as a single. After two such commercially disappointing outings, how did one obscure song become an international anthem for human triumph and tragedy, a song each successive generation seems to feel they have discovered and claimed as uniquely their own?
Through in-depth interviews with its interpreters and the key figures who were actually there for its original recordings, acclaimed music journalist Alan Light follows the improbable journey of “Hallelujah” straight to the heart of popular culture. The Holy or the Broken gives insight into how great songs come to be, how they come to be listened to, and how they can be forever reinterpreted.
"Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' has been performed and recorded by hundreds of artists from U2, Justine Timberlake, and Celine Dion to Renee Fleming and Willie Nelson, and Rolling Stone named it one of the 500 greatest songs of all time. Ironically, his record company refused to release Cohen's 1984 album, Various Positions, that included the song, and many Cohen fans don't consider 'Hallelujah' to be among his best songs. Rock journalist Light, who co-wrote Gregg Allman's memoir, My Cross to Bear, carefully and methodically traces the evolution of the song from obscurity to classic anthem. In 1991, John Cale of the Velvet Underground recorded a stripped-down version of 'Hallelujah,' a soaring meditation on life, faith, and love, on his album I'm Your Fan, that Cohen himself began playing in his live performances, and in 1994, Jeff Buckley recorded what has become the best known version of the song on his album, Grace. Buckley delivered his nearly seven-minute version as a 'hallelujah to the orgasm... an ode to life and love, swooning with emotion,' while Cohen and Cale sang the song as an ode to experience and wisdom. Buckley's cover version animated the song so much that many fans attributed 'Hallelujah' to Buckley instead of Cohen. Pop music fans will already be familiar with many of these stories. Even so, Light's charming ode to a pop music phenomenon makes a nice companion to Sylvie Simmons's outstanding and definitive biography of Leonard Cohen, I'm Your Man." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
A fascinating account of the making, remaking, and unlikely popularizing of one of the most played and recorded rock songs in history—Leonard Cohen’s beautiful and heartrending “Hallelujah.”
It’s become a staple of movie and television shows as diverse as Shrek, The OC, and The West Wing. It was the song MTV and VH1 chose for their official post-9/11 tribute video, using Jeff Buckley’s acclaimed rendition, and was the centerpiece of the telethon that followed the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Today, it is one of the most recorded rock songs in history, covered by hundreds of artists, including Bono, Bon Jovi, Justin Timberlake, Susan Boyle, and Celine Dion.
Yet when iconoclastic rocker Leonard Cohen first wrote and recorded the song “Hallelujah,” it attracted little attention or airplay, not even making it onto his own “Best of” album. How did one unknown song become an international anthem for human triumph and tragedy, one which each successive generation feels they have discovered and claimed as uniquely their own?
Through in-depth interviews with the people who were actually there, Alan Light—one of the foremost music journalists working today—follows “Hallelujah”’s improbable and epic journey straight to the heart of popular culture. The Holy or the Broken not only gives insight into how great songs come to be, but how they come to be listened to and forever reinterpreted.
About the Author
Alan Light was a senior editor at Rolling Stone, founding music editor and editor-in-chief of Vibe, and editor-in-chief of Spin Magazine. He has been a contributor for The New Yorker, GQ, Entertainment Weekly, Elle, Mother Jones, and the Oxford American. He is also author of The Skills to Pay the Bills, an oral history of the Beastie Boys.
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