This is one of the greatest songs of the last 40 years.
It was written in 1984 by singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, and his rendition is sad, dirge-like, and very melancholy, even with the words, “Hallelujah” repeatedly sung throughout. Cohen’s gravelly voice and the slow tempo give the song a dark cynicism. But there is beauty to be heard, and other artists have made the song come alive.
I discovered the song as a result of the movie Shrek, which included a version by John Cale in the film. On the soundtrack album, however, it was artist Rufus Wainwright whose version was featured. It was my first exposure to a truly breathtaking and heartfelt song.
The word “Hallelujah” means “to sing in joyous praise, to boast in God.” Literally, it says, “Praise God, you people.”
Although Cohen may have meant it sarcastically, the fact that it resonates so beautifully is testimony to the power of the word, and the act of praising God in the midst of even the most difficult times of life. The song makes reference to David and Samson, both of whom made mistakes and screwed up. Sometimes, as Coehn says, our praise doesn’t come from happiness or joy, but “cold and broken hallelujah.” Sometimes we praise God because we are so broken we have nothing else we can possibly say.
So, hallelujah. Whatever your place, whatever your moment. Whether cold and broken or filled with joy, whether out of the darkest places of your soul or out of gratitude, hallelujah.
It’s a beautiful, sad, and haunting song. And sometimes it speaks right to the heart.
(Here’s the most famous version, by the late Jeff Buckley.)