Leonard Cohen Revises “Hallelujah” Into A Love Song
If you were Leonard Cohen, and you kept hearing how no one considers your version of “Hallelujah” to be the best one—and, trust me, most people do not—you might be tempted, on your new tour, to change the song’s arrangement a bit. Make it a little more like that dead pretty boy, with chiming guitar, or more like the viola guy from that Warhol band, a little peppier and piano-driven. But did he?
Well, sort of. Cohen doesn’t borrow anything instrumentally, as the arrangement is basically the same organ-heavy vibe as heard on Cohen Live. That album’s “Hallelujah,” taken from a mid-’80s tour, was notably different from the studio version, as it began with three new verses before finishing with the fourth verse of the original. Cale would combine the two versions to produce the five-verse arrangement that Buckley used, and which most people are familiar with.
At first, it seems like Cohen is going to capitulate and embrace the sad-sack miserabilism that Buckley’s revision embodied. The first four verses are, indeed, the same as in Cale’s arrangement, but the closing verse is different. Where Cale closed with a harrowing verse with the climactic line “It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah,” Cohen instead interjects the verse he used to finish off both of his previous versions. That verse concludes with:
And even though It all went wrong I’ll stand before the Lord of Song With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
In Cale’s version, the hope of ecstasy promised by the sensual fourth verse (“remember when I moved in you”) is ultimately crushed by the hopelessness present in most of the other verses. But here, that verse is followed with the above affirmation of triumph. When Cohen used this verse to close his previous live version, it came after utter dejection, and so represented a kind of hope in the face of hopelessness. Now it finds itself transformed into a statement about love. This arrangement says that love is imperfect, but nevertheless works, somehow, and can achieve a kind of transcendent, irrational bliss if you give it time. Where Cohen’s studio version was youthful Biblical cleverness and his ’80s live version was midlife despair, in his old age—and with that wonderful voice—he instead affirms love, in spite of it all.
I’m no hardcore Cohen fan, so I don’t know how long he’s been using this version. But it for sure tops that worn-out old stub of a banality that is the Buckley version. As, regrettably, Watchmen realized. Ah well, you can’t win ’em all.