"For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest."
So Lord Byron wrote, and, apparently, The NYT thinks that Leonard Cohen's song Hallelujah has outworn its welcome:
Few people noticed “Hallelujah” when Mr. Cohen released the track — part hymn, part love song — on Side 2 of his 1984 album “Various Positions,” but over the next few years, it caught the attention of artists like Bob Dylan (who played it live) and the former Velvet Underground member John Cale, who attempted his own version on the tribute album “I’m Your Fan.” In 1994, Jeff Buckley included an impassioned version on his LP “Grace,” which has become the cover that is most often imitated.The Times then gives several examples, only one of which I was familiar with:
The song has since become a contemporary standard, performed everywhere from subway stops to synagogues, where its melody is often transposed onto the lyrics of the Sabbath liturgical song “Lecha Dodi.” Bono, Bon Jovi, Willie Nelson, Paramore and Celine Dion have all recorded it.
But “Hallelujah” is most familiar from film and TV, where it has soundtracked dozens of deaths and breakups, and been belted in too many singing competitions to count. Because it telegraphs emotion — both mournful and hopeful — and involves some vocal acrobatics, it has become shorthand for Big Emotional Moment and employed by performers looking to stamp themselves with authenticity.
Now, here's where I got lucky: this was the first time I'd heard "Hallelujah" and the first and last time I saw it used in media. Luckily, I only watch a few TV shows (seriously, I'm just binge-watching Game of Thrones now, though I'd read the novels years ago), and other than The West Wing, none of them used to. So "Hallelujah" has not yet bee worn out for me yet. *Not listening to pop radio means I can still enjoy Hotel California (yeah, yeah, whatevs. Have you heard the motets of Lassus? Don't judge...)
Anyway, "Hallelujah." Cohen's song is complex enough and storied enough that a pretty good book has been written about it. As wrote a few years back, the song morphs from version to version--at least when Cohen performs it; most covers follow the pattern set by John Cale and Jeff Buckley.
But look at the structure: First, we have a verse introducing the story of David, singing before the Lord--but with a bitter edge. Then, the story of David and Bathsheba--"You saw her bathing on the roof/Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you." And, just to complicate matters more, the story blends with that of Samson and Delilah--"she tied you to a kitchen chair, she broke your throne and she cut your hair". Bathsheba may have a verse herself--"I've seen your flag on the marble arch/but love is not a victory march," sometimes feels like a wry observation from a woman whose preferences were not, shall we say, consulted.
The other verses, in counterpart, speak of the bitterness of betrayal, the seeming meaninglessness life and love itself ("maybe there's a God above/but all I've ever learned from love/is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you"") can present at times, and our own crippling inability to "only connect." And throughout, the narrator refuses to accept the stereotype of an easy festal shout of "Hallellujah!" Life hurts, bucko. You may give that shout--but not easily, not without the experience of desolation that the spiritual life doesn't immunize us from.
The biblical references frame the song--in some versions they follow each other, in others not. They invoke Scripture but not in a simple re-telling--the scriptural story goes back and forth with a narrator who (as the verses quoted above shows, and ) is pretty jaundiced about life, and, as this and other verses show, about love--sacred at times (the "Holy Dove was moving too"and yet so transitory. But then what a finish--in the versions that use it:
I've done my best,George Herbert has gotta love that. Seriously, beat this as a theological rumination--it's a testament of a soul battered, not broken, hurt by life but choosing to love, and appearing before the Great Mystery with truth and a kind of hell-busted joy.
it wasn't much.
I couldn't feel
so I learned to touch.
I've told the truth,
I didn't come here just to fool you
And though it seems it all went wrong,
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
with nothing on my tongue but Hallellujah
But what to do if, after decades of overuse, Cohen's most famous song has lost its evocative richness for you? Try his back catalogue. And not just the older masterpieces, like "Everybody Knows," or "Anthem," or the heartbreaking "Alexandra Leaving" (that one tears at me more than any other song he's written; I literally can't listen to it again). Try "Amen"(2012) on for size: