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Lyrics as Poetry: Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’

Editorial Staff

Michael Lista is the Poetry Editor of The Walrus Magazine and Poetry Columnist for National Post. In this series, he examines the lyrics of classic Canadian songs. 

Here, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah":

Despite my conviction — shared by the songwriter himself — that the world needs an indefinite moratorium on covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” especially any where that chinless St. Peter Simon Cowell looks on in judgment with his unholy mix of boredom and greed, and a too-tanned, over-hairsprayed host, maybe some ex-Prime Minister’s son, reapplies his lipstick in the wings as the song gets vibratoed to death, I still think this is Cohen’s best song. 

Let’s not begin to innumerate the post-modern layers of horror patented when Justin Timberlake performed “Hallelujah” for the benefit of the victims of the Haitian earthquake. If we were to draw an analogy between Cohen’s work and one of his chief influences, W.B. Yeats, the songwriter’s album The Future is his The Tower, his finest full-length sustained effort. However, “Hallelujah” is Cohen’s The Second Coming, the eerily perfect vision that feels as if it was dictated whole by a bright, unbearable Angel Gabriel. 

Of course that’s not how “Hallelujah” was actually written. Cohen once told Bob Dylan that it took him two years to write the song, that he filled two notebooks full of verses, some 80 in all, before he eventually settled on the version recorded for his 1984 album Various Positions. But after that record was released, on his next couple of tours, Cohen would pick and choose and shuffle verses when he performed “Hallelujah” and so you never knew, like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, what exactly you were gonna get.

The “Hallelujah” we’ve come to know owes much to the great Welsh genius John Cale, founding member of The Velvet Underground, and the mind behind the imperishable album Paris 1919, who saw Cohen perform the song and asked for the lyrics.  Cohen faxed Cale more than a dozen pages of verses, and Cale picked the verses he liked best. It was Cale who standardized “Hallelujah” as we know it, and it was Cale’s version that Jeff Buckley sang — and in my opinion, perfected — on his album Grace.

Faced with those 80 verses, dozens of versions and hundreds of covers, I want to draw your attention to only seven words from “Hallelujah” that are some of Cohen’s best and simplest and most important: “The minor fall and the major lift.” Cohen was born into a Jewish family in Montreal, and famously lived as a Zen Buddhist monk for many years, but Christianity has always occupied a central, totemic place in his poetry, prose and songwriting. The lyrics occur as the chord progression begins (which chord? “The secret chord/That David played and it pleased the Lord”); Cohen sings “and it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth” which many have noted is Cohen singing about the musical composition of the song itself (a song that Cohen, as the psalmist King David, is not so secretly teaching you to play). The same is true of “the minor fall and the major lift” where we rise from the anxiety-inducing stumble of A minor to F, most certainly an aural lift in the key of C major.

But those seven words are doing a lot more than form-content meta work; they’re also a synopsis, in music and lyrics, of the entirety of Christian theology. The minor fall is the fall from grace, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, what Milton called “the fortunate fall” that “brought death into the world, and all our woe.” That is the imperfect world of “Hallelujah.” But it’s fortunate, in Milton’s mind, because it franchises Christ’s vicarious redemption of humanity in “the major lift” of his — and subsequently our — resurrection.

Of course, Cohen’s deployment of Christianity is a symbolic, even ironic one — this is the same man, remember, who filched Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “There is a crack in everything God has made” and transformed it into “There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in” — but it’s nonetheless a staggeringly elegant, and characteristically smirking, oral and aural compression of one of humanity’s most complicated systems of thought. That chord progression, and the seven words that mirror it, is what a whole religion sounds like. And that’s just the first verse.