It famously took Leonard Cohen several years to complete, writing as many as 80 verses before settling on the four that he recorded. Since then, Hallelujah has become an anthem for a generation, and a modern standard – ironically so, since Cohen’s record label initially rejected the song.
In 1984 Cohen was recording Hallelujah and other songs for his upcoming “Various Positions” album. With its Old Testament references the song has a prayer-like feel, so Cohen’s producer, John Lissauer, suggested a gospel style and added a church-type choir. With Cohen singing in his deep baritone at a dignified tempo, each verse crescendoed powerfully to the chorus of “Hallelujah!”
Lissauer was excited about having created a standard and wanted to release Hallelujah as a single. Surprisingly, however, the head of the Columbia label rejected the album. It had to be released independently, first in Canada and Europe and then in the U.S; neither the album nor the single received much notice.
Cohen and Lissauer could have been forgiven for assuming that they had been wrong about the song – until in 1988 another great poet-songwriter, Bob Dylan, gave Hallelujah traction by singing it in concerts.
Then came the 1991 Cohen tribute album “I’m Your Fan,” on which rocker John Cale’s version attracted attention. New covers cropped up later, including Jeff Buckley’s 1994 dramatic rendering with an additional verse; he described Hallelujah as, “… a hymn to being alive. It’s a hymn to love lost. To love.”
Hallelujah’s next break came when Cale’s version was used in the 2001 blockbuster movie “Shrek,” which introduced the song to millions of kids and their parents. The 2000s also saw heavy primetime television exposure for Hallelujah on “Scrubs,” “The West Wing,” “The O.C.,” “House,” “Without a Trace,” and “ER.”
“American Idol” contestant Jason Castro brought Hallelujah more exposure, as did “The X Factor” winner Alexandra Burke in 2008. Hallelujah was a massive hit in the U.K., with four versions charting in one amazing month: Burke’s cover was No. 1; Buckley’s version (posthumously after his 1997 death by drowning) was No. 2 and itunes’ No. 1; and Cohen’s original and Kate Voegele’s cover charted simultaneously.
In 2010 Hallelujah charted for the first time (at No. 13) on Billboard’s Hot 100, sung by Justin Timberlake and Matt Morris. Subsequent covers have vied on the Adult Contemporary, Hot Rock, Digital Sales, Christian, and other charts.
Cohen’s own single finally reached Billboard’s Hot 100 in the month following his death, and was top five in digital sales.
Many have debated the meaning of Hallelujah. Cohen himself said, “It’s a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way, but with enthusiasm, with emotion.” k.d. lang, who performed it at the Vancouver Winter Olympics opening ceremony, says: “It can be deep, simple, mean a lot of things to different people, there’s so much in it.”
“Maclean’s” magazine called Hallelujah “the closest thing pop music has to a sacred text.” The song is studied by academics, and a book has been written about it: “The Holy or the Broken,” by Alan Light.
Canadians who have performed Hallelujah include Measha Brueggergosman, Celine Dion, The Canadian Tenors, Fred Eaglesmith, Patricia O’Callaghan, Steven Page, Rufus Wainwright, and Choir, Choir, Choir.
A few of the international artists who have made Hallelujah their own are India Arie, Alter Bridge, Bono, Jon Bon Jovi, Susan Boyle, Alexandra Burke, Sheryl Crow, Allison Crowe, Neil Diamond, Imogen Heap, Alison Krauss, Willie Nelson, Amanda Palmer, and Pentatonix.
The inimitable poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen (1934 – 2016) was born in Montreal. His honours have been many: he is in the Rock and Roll and Canadian Music halls of fame and the U.S. Songwriters Hall of Fame, and received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. He made multiple gold and platinum recordings, and was a nine-time Juno winner.