Leonard Cohen spent years struggling with his song “Hallelujah.” He recalls being in a New York hotel room in his underwear, “banging my head on the floor and saying, ‘I can’t finish this song.’ ” He wrote perhaps as many as 80 verses before paring the song down and recording it on the 1984 album “Various Positions.” Then his label, CBS Records, refused to release “Various Positions,” not realizing that “Hallelujah” would become one of the most haunting, mutable and oft-performed songs in American musical history.
This is a banner year for the durable, debonair Mr. Cohen, and anyone who seeks to understand him. Sylvie Simmons’s biography “I’m Your Man” is the definitive Cohen portrait, fearless and smart, even if it includes more detailed information than nondevotees really need.
Now Alan Light has devoted a whole book, “The Holy or the Broken,” to the “Hallelujah” story, which is so rich and sui generis that it barely overlaps with Ms. Simmons’s more sweeping account. A little advice: Go for the twofer. Both Mr. Cohen and his song are fascinatingly mercurial, with the power to move their admirers in mysterious ways.
“The Holy or the Broken” comes with codes that, when scanned, are supposed to yield different versions of “Hallelujah.” Or you can go straight to YouTube and find the renditions that matter most to this book. Mr. Light discusses these performances of “Hallelujah” in chronological order, but there’s much more to “The Holy or the Broken” than a litany of cover versions. The real questions are these: How did this obscure song get into our elevators, subway stations, movies and TV shows? Why is it used at benefits to help victims of disaster? Why won’t contestants on musical talent shows quit butchering it? Why do the lyrics of different versions vary so much? And how did this song get its reputation for universality when nobody, not even Mr. Cohen, really knows what it means?
The album containing “Hallelujah” came out on an independent label in 1984, and then it languished. See Ms. Simmons’s account for an understanding of why, by 1991, the world was nonetheless ready for a Leonard Cohen tribute album: “I’m Your Fan,” put together by the French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles. This album prompted a major overhaul of “Hallelujah” by John Cale, once of the Velvet Underground, who re-edited the lyrics, coming up with a version that has proved more enduring than Mr. Cohen’s. Mr. Cale’s stark, exquisitely pure rendition, with an emphasis on the song’s eroticism, is by some lights (like this one) the best “Hallelujah” ever recorded.
A remarkable stroke of fate sent Jeff Buckley, then an aspiring young troubadour, to stay in a New York apartment that happened to contain a copy of “I’m Your Fan.” Buckley heard the song and, like many who have heard it, claimed he had no idea who had written it. But he included an intensely, beautifully ethereal version of it on his 1994 album, “Grace,” giving it a young man’s hypercharged sensibility rather than the Cohen-Cale seasoned one. When Buckley died young (as his doppelgänger father, the singer Tim Buckley, had), “Hallelujah” developed a cult following. “Leonard penned it, but Jeff owned it,” Mr. Light writes.
The song leapt another hurdle because Andrew Adamson, one of the directors of the 2001 animated classic “Shrek,” had heard the Cale version on a movie soundtrack (for the film “Basquiat”). There’s a point in “Shrek” when the big green guy is feeling lovelorn and alone, and “Hallelujah” was becoming a go-to song for accompanying sad moments. But “Shrek” was a DreamWorks film, and a DreamWorks recording artist was needed. Enter Rufus Wainwright, who sang a fine but snappier version than Cale’s and helped drum this song into the consciousness of a whole generation of young listeners and viewers.
“Hallelujah” became even more ubiquitous after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. It was played frequently for its soothing, spiritual effect, and for whatever consolation it provided. While the song could be made to sound like a hymn, it also underscored the great sensitivity of the singer. (Mr. Light points to the Bono, Jon Bon Jovi and Susan Boyle versions as horrible mistakes.) The “Hallelujah” perfect storm had now reached the point where, according to the music critic Bill Flanagan, “Every time you walked into a showcase at the South by Southwest festival, it was like, ‘Here’s two songs I wrote and ‘Hallelujah.’ ” “Hallelujah” fatigue seemed ready to set in.
But there are many more twists to this remarkable little-song-that-could story. Two major shifts forced the song even further into the public eye. The first was the rise of talent contest TV shows, where 90-second versions of this song became standard. (It’s a song that makes almost any singer sound good, except for the insufferably overwrought gushers who win these contests.)
The second was when Mr. Cohen, then reaching 70 and having spent five years in a California monastery, found that his savings had been stolen. So he began touring again after a 15-year performing hiatus. “Hallelujah” became a religious experience when he took it on the road.
Mr. Light, a frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a fine companion for this journey through one song’s changing fortunes. He occasionally has the magazine writer’s weakness of using slight interviews that have been conducted on the fly. But most of his conversations about the song, its writer and its many interpreters are thoughtful and illuminating.
Still, he, like Ms. Simmons, is clearly a fan. And fans sometimes go overboard. So Mr. Light lets us know that Daniel Handler (a k a Lemony Snicket) played “Hallelujah” on the accordion at Neil Gaiman’s wedding in Michael Chabon’s apartment. And he tells the blissed-out tale of a couple who decided “Hallelujah” was the perfect name for their daughter: Hallelujah Talerico is Lulu now, and is thinking of becoming Hallie some day. But sometimes she does use her full name, knowing — as we all do — that Hallelujah is a glorious word to say.