cover image The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”

The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”

Alan Light. Atria, $25 (272p) ISBN 978-1-4516-5784-5

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. (Dec.)