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How Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ Became an Unlikely Pop Standard

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Do you remember the first time you heard “Hallelujah?” Was it in Shrek? Maybe on a reality-singing competition show? Maybe you just heard it from a street musician somewhere and thought, “That’s a really nice song.”

It’s safe to say at this point, though, that the majority of people who’ve been touched by the song didn’t hear it from its writer, the late Leonard Cohen. Cohen’s song — like Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” vis-a-vis Johnny Cash — has become one of those rare examples of a song completely outshining its author as it’s made its way through pop culture. Here’s how that happened.

PA Wire/Press Association Images
PA Wire/Press Association Images

First off, it’s important to state the obvious: “Hallelujah” is an incredible song. One of the commonly repeated facts about Cohen was that he was a published poet before he ever started making music, and “Hallelujah” is an almost too-clever-by-half triumph of composition. It’s easy to hear the graceful way the vocal melody ascends with the chords in the second half of the verse, but here’s a neat bit of music theory: The chord progression actually mirrors the words. With the lyrics, “It goes like this / the fourth, the fifth / the minor fall and the major lift,” the chords actually progress to the fourth chord of the song’s key, then the fifth, then one of its minor chords, then back to another major, all directly in line with the words. That’s some layered songwriting.

And apparently, it almost drove Cohen insane. He recalled sitting in his underwear on the floor of his room at New York’s Royalton Hotel literally banging his head on the floor as he drafted some 80 verses of text for the song.

“Hallelujah” made its first appearance on Cohen’s 1984 album Various Positions, draped in enough synthesizers and backup singers to give anyone familiar with its more stripped-down incarnations pause. Among its earliest fans was Bob Dylan, who started covering the song in concert as early as 1988. Tracing the different versions of “Hallelujah” often comes down to which of the song’s insane amount of verses the performer chooses —  Cohen himself would rework the song later, ending it on a more bleak verse than the original — and Dylan went with the first version, the one that ends with “And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.”

The “modern” version of “Hallelujah” can be traced to ex-Velvet Underground multi-instrumentalist John Cale, whose version of the song — with his stately voice backed only by his piano — was released first in a 1991 Cohen tribute album called I’m Your Fan and then a year later on Cale’s 1992 live album Fragments of a Rainy Season. When he decided to cover the song, Cale reportedly asked Cohen for a copy of the lyrics, only to watch with increasing amusement as all 80 verses spilled out of his fax machine over 15 pages.

No discussion of “Hallelujah,” though, is complete without mentioning Jeff Buckley. Inspired by Cale’s version, Buckley recorded his own for his 1994 album Grace, and his gentle electric guitar filigrees and unearthly falsetto — at one point he sings the title across 23 seconds — remain the definitive version of the song for many listeners, no doubt bolstered by Buckley’s tragic death. John Legend called it “one of the most beautiful pieces of recorded music I’ve ever heard.”

Buckley’s rendition of the song was not released as a single, and Grace didn’t even go gold until nine years after its release. But in the intervening time, “Hallelujah” would appear on the double-platinum-selling Shrek soundtrack in 2001— Cale’s version in the film, a similar arrangement by Rufus Wainwright on the album — and break the song to whole new audience, many of whom would go on to find Buckley’s version via then-nascent file-sharing services like Napster.

From there, the floodgates opened. Cale’s version of the song would appear in episodes of Scrubs & Cold Case, while Buckley’s would pop up in — to name but a few — The West Wing, Crossing Jordan, Without a Trace, The O.C., House, Criminal Minds, ER, Third Watch, NCIS and Ugly Betty.

In 2008, during the seventh season of American Idol, Jason Castro performed Buckley’s version of the song, which propelled the late singer’s version to the top of download charts. In 2010, Justin Timberlake memorably paid tribute to the song by performing it with fellow musician and Mickey Mouse Club-mate Matt Morris during MTV’s Hope For Haiti Now benefit concert.

In 2014, it was announced that Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” would be inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. Per Nielsen, at the time of Cohen’s death, his version of “Hallelujah” had been streamed or purchased 418,000 times, with Buckley’s version slightly more popular at a combined 2,700,000.

All of which is to say, now that Cohen is presumably standing before his Lord of Song, “Hallelujah” is a pretty solid thing to have on his tongue.