Subject to interpretation

I’ve been listening to variations of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah multiple times in the past day.  A friend passed it along and I have been intrigued by not only the lyrics, but by the different artist’s interpretations of the song.

From wikipedia

Cohen’s lyrical poetry and his view that “many different hallelujahs exist” is reflected in wide-ranging covers with very different intents or tones of speech, allowing the song to be “melancholic, fragile, uplifting [or] joyous” depending on the performer:[1] The Welsh singer-songwriter John Cale, the first person to record a cover version of the song in 1991, promoted a message of “soberness and sincerity” in contrast to Cohen’s dispassionate tone;[1] The cover by Jeff Buckley, an American singer-songwriter, is more sorrowful and was described by Buckley as “a hallelujah to the orgasm”;[1][3] Crowe interpreted the song as a “very sexual” composition that discussed relationships;[1] Wainwright offered a “purifying and almost liturgical” interpretation to the song;[1] and Guy Garvey of the British band Elbow anthropomorphised the hallelujah as a “stately creature” and incorporated his religious interpretation of the song into his band’s recordings.[1]

While I love the lyrics, I’m not terribly fond of Cohen’s voice, so I find it hard to enjoy his version of it.

“Hallelujah”

I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

There was a time you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who has seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah

This version is the one heard in the movie Shrek and the last two verses are absent.  Most other cover of the song use Cole’s version of the lyrics.

I think I like Buckley’s version the best.  Yes, it’s melancholic a bit, but his voice just drips with a sensuality that moves me the most.

I like Wainright’s version too.  It has a crisper and indeed has a more liturgical sound.

Which one is your favorite?  What do you think Cohen meant?

It really depends both the performer and the listener, but MY favorite interpretation is Crissy’s response, found at the here at lyricinterpretations.com

Most of the interpretations I have heard refer to biblical stories and of course it is impossible to ignore the analogies with King David and Bathsheba. However, I think these can obscure the meaning of the song and I would rather go beyond them. Analyzing a poem line by line sometimes misses the core of meaning which may actually be not fully realized by the poet himself.What after all was Kubla Khan, Coleridges poem about? It came out of a drug-induced reverie and the words are impossible to interpret literally.

What I see in the poem is a man who finds it hard to reconcile his own singular personal quest for truth as a spiritual seeker and as a creative artist with earthly love. He is “overthrown” by the beauty of the woman bathing on the roof and intoxicated with desire for her yet with that comes compromise. Being tied to a kitchen chair suggests being bound to domesticity and having his hair cut recalls Samson whose strength was lost when Delilah cut his hair. He feels he has sacrificed his power for ephemeral sexual desire,emotional needs and freedom from the burden of loneliness.

My friend thinks the last verse in the Cohen’s version speaks to him most about resignation. To me it seems like that too. Where one gave everything they have, but in the end it just isn’t good enough. In the last moments, standing before God in one’s humility, not having anything to say of one’s mistakes in life except Hallelujah. As my friend told me, a ‘soft, sweet, helpless, resignation’.

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

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About Casey

“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ~ Jack Kerouac, On The Road Again
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One Response to Subject to interpretation

  1. Melody says:

    I have been obsessed with that song starting about a month ago as well!

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