There was a moment last December when a lightbulb went off in my head, though it glowed more like a string of Christmas lights. My wife, daughter, and I were driving home from a family gathering, listening to one of those radio stations that switches to exclusively holiday music after Thanksgiving. It was probably the contemporary Christian station because the song that emerged from our speakers had distinctly religious lyrics delivered in that burly, quavering, Scott Stapp vocal style that has come to dominate modern worship music. It told the nativity story against a backdrop of piano and emotional swells out of the post-rock playbook, and it did so by hijacking a familiar musical template. This couldn’t be happening, and yet it was: Some Christian rock band from Kansas had turned Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” into a corny Christmas song.
I did not realize just how popular “Hallelujah” had become until I heard what Cloverton had done to it. Their reworking was saccharine and unsubtle and light years removed from the ambiguous spirit of Cohen’s original. It was not, however, out of step with the vast library of “Hallelujah” covers that have emerged in recent years. Though it is probably not Cohen’s best song, it has become his best-known work by far, a modern standard performed by hundreds and beloved by millions. Although Cohen is a living legend of incomparable stature and influence, he remains a cult figure compared to Prince and David Bowie, whom Cohen joined this week in 2016’s endless parade of iconic musician deaths. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know his name. But they all know his song.
We can trace the lineage that brought “Hallelujah” to ubiquity easily enough. The song first appeared on Cohen’s 1984 album Various Positions without much fanfare — Rolling Stone’s review didn’t mention it — and it continued in relative oblivion for a decade, though fellow titans Bob Dylan and John Cale each contributed their own versions of the track. Cale’s “Hallelujah” cover inspired Jeff Buckley to record his own dramatically embellished rendition for 1994’s Grace, which rapidly overshadowed Cohen’s original to become arguably the definitive “Hallelujah.” Even Buckley’s cover was not released as a single, but as Grace accumulated esteem in the years following Buckley’s death, the song gained increasingly wider circulation until 2001, when Rufus Wainwright covered it for the Shrek soundtrack of all things. And from there it expanded into infinity, becoming the kind of well-worn standard that endlessly resurfaces at funerals, in American Idol auditions, on episodes of The O.C.
So how “Hallelujah” caught on has very little to do with Leonard Cohen, but why has everything to do with him. The song demonstrates the lyrical genius Cohen will always be known for, his ability to express modern sentiments in classical language with timeless results. He was a poet and a storyteller first, and “Hallelujah” scans as the most poetic of stories: a mysterious glimpse of some space between the human and the divine, one that hints at fiery passion and crippling sorrow but also makes room for droll humor (“but you don’t really care for music, do you?”). You could spend multiple chapters expositing it, which is to be expected where Cohen is concerned.
Where he doesn’t get due credit is on the musical axis. It’s not that Cohen’s musicianship has a negative reputation, but perhaps because his singing voice is so gruff and unconventional, the focus tends to be on his remarkable way with words. “Hallelujah” reminds us that he was equally deft at crafting a melody; Buckley may have been the one who set those notes on fire and sent them rocketing into the heavens, but they were as stirring and unshakeable when Cohen first sang them in baritone. For all its evocative imagery, this song would not have stuck without a stroke of musical inspiration.
There is, of course, much more where that came from, and on a day when the world is mourning Cohen’s loss, it would be a shame to limit your appreciation of the man to just one song. Spend some time with his final masterpiece, last month’s stunning You Want It Darker, and move backwards from there. Or start with 1967’s Songs Of Leonard Cohen and work your way forward through half a century of classics. Or just queue up your favorite Cohen album, or the one your Cohen-freak friend recommends. Take in the full scope of his accomplishment. Let the loss sink in.
But also take some time to marvel at this Canadian literary hero’s weirdest, most widespread success: an obscure deep cut that became so overwhelmingly popular that ultimate cheeseballs Pentatonix put it on their latest Christmas album even though it has nothing to do with Christmas — a major lift not owing to secret chords, just a mind that could assemble the most commonplace elements into something profound.