The first version you hear of Hallelujah is the one you love. For me, that is the one that is on Cohen Live. Leonard’s live album was released in 1994 but the recording of the song came from a performance in 1988. Cohen doesn’t rush these things. Hallelujah took over two years to write and, even now, there is no definitive version of which of the 15 verses should be sung, nor which exact phrases should form them. And, if you think Don McLean’s American Pie is hard to understand (it isn’t), the enigmas that run throughout Hallelujah will leave you baffled. But being baffled, like the king composing perhaps, is where the beauty and power lies.
Radio 4’s Soul Music spent 30 minutes pondering the song and recounted a lot that would be familiar to many of the people who have lived it with it for a long time. How the version you hear on the 1984 album Various Positions is jarring compared to the softer alternatives, how John Cale asked Cohen for the lyrics when putting together what would be his defining cover version and received instead a confusing ream of fax paper, how Jeff Buckley had not heard Cohen’s version, only Cale’s, and so on. We did hear from Alexandra Burke whose oft-derided X Factor version also got an airing, “I’m going to Whitney-fy it” was her response to her immediate reaction that she couldn’t actually do anything with the song.
Intermingled with the story of some of the recordings we heard from people who had been affected by the song, as well as some very detailed analysis of the biblical inspiration for the lines. The impact of those lines, and the multiple interpretations that exist for them, was heard through the testimony of people who have found emotional solace in it. That it can be both positive and negative, that it can it leave you feeling you understand everything but that at the same time, nothing can be understood, that sometimes all you have left is a cold and a broken hallelujah. And that could be an orgasmic moment, or a moment following a death. Or any point in between. “It embraces the whole mess of what love is … and that’s not a bad thing,” as one of the speakers said. Some song, huh?
This wasn’t a programme for those who wanted chapter and verse on the song, its history and cultural impact but it was a useful and engaging reminder that for all Hallelujah‘s recent ubiquity it remains a rare example of a well-known and much-loved song that welcomes, indeed demands, a personal response. It stays intimate despite being universal.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need go and stand before the Lord of Song. There may only be one things on my lips.