Charting the remarkable journey of a modern musical classic, from obscurity to ubiquity.
Former Vibe and Spin editor Light’s (The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys, 2006) brisk, engrossing study of “Hallelujah” comes on the heels of Sylvie Simmons’ definitive Cohen biography, but this book is brilliantly revelatory on its own. The song, a beguiling, mysterious mix of the spiritual and the erotic with an incantatory chorus, originally appeared on the Canadian singer-songwriter’s 1984 album "Various Positions." Cohen’s label, Columbia, refused to issue the album, and it appeared on an independent label; it failed to sell. But the song was kept alive by John Cale’s 1991 cover, augmented by new verses supplied by its author, and Jeff Buckley’s heavenly rendering of Cale’s text on his 1994 debut album “Grace.” That album also flopped commercially, but “Hallelujah” became the touchstone of Buckley’s posthumous reputation after his death. Light skillfully delineates the song’s genesis as a contemporary standard, through its emotionally potent use in a famous VH1 montage after 9/11, feature films like Shrek, a host of TV shows and televised sing-offs like American Idol. Though Cohen declined to be interviewed for the book, Light spoke with several of his key collaborators plus many of its interpreters, including k.d. lang, Rufus Wainwright, Bono and Jon Bon Jovi. He recounts how the tardy success of Cohen’s unheralded composition led to his latter-day critical and commercial renaissance: After his manager embezzled nearly $10 million from his accounts, Cohen returned to performing on the back of “Hallelujah” and reinstated himself with a rapturously received 2008-2010 world tour. In the meantime, the song had become a fixture of religious ceremonies, bar mitzvahs, weddings and memorial services. Light’s main point is that the song’s stirring melody, malleability and lyrical ambiguity made it a natural candidate for wide-scale popular adoration.
A masterful work of critical journalism.