I just finished reading Alan Light’s The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, & the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah.” That’s right, it’s an entire book about one song, the ubiquitous, brilliant “Hallelujah.” And while it ends up being a difficult narrative to sustain beyond about 200 pages, it’s music-geek nirvana when it’s got juice.
The book traces the song’s three-decade rise to cultural domination, from a forgotten Cohen track, to a gem of a cover first by John Cale and then the doomed young indie rocker Buckley. Along the way, the song becomes a hallmark of cool for music-heads and singer-songwriters who latch on mostly to Buckley’s version after his possibly suicidal death, then a staple for soundtracks (even Shrek!), TV dramas, moments of national mourning (9/11) and triumph (the Olympics), and, Yaweh help us, singing competition shows.
The Holy or the Broken ends up serving as an abbreviated biography of Cohen and Buckley, which is when it’s at its best. The narrative gets thinner toward the end as the song just keeps spinning out endless iterations, and the book simply wades through quote after quote from the artists responsible for the different covers. We get it: some people interpret “Hallelujah” as a song of triumph, some as a song of tragedy, some as a song of sexual longing, some as a song of pure love, some as a combo of these things. In the end, the book concludes, fascinatingly, that the reason for this song’s eternal life lies in its many possible interpretations, a stroke of odd luck for a modern song; the main reason so many different kinds of artists can offer their own takes on it is that Cohen, a lyrical perfectionist, spun out dozens of verses for it over the years. The more cynical can latch onto the verses that rhyme, say, “You don’t really care for music, do ya?” with the “Hallelujah.” Those more interested in the sacred and the profane of sex can choose the verse that involves seeing a woman bathing on the roof and subsequently getting tied to a kitchen chair. The devastated can go with “All I ever learned from love is how to shoot at someone who outdrew ya.”
For anyone who loves Cohen, Buckley, or nerd-level pop music history, this book — especially the first 50 pages — will enchant with every turn of that fateful minor fall and major lift.