If there is a song about love that got labeled as a Christmas hymn, it would be “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. The song is actually about a devastating ending of a love between two people. However, the song acquires a religious undertone due to the many Biblical references. Hence, this song can be categorized as a secular hymn. In this article, we will look at the work of the original composer and artist Leonard Cohen’s version, as well as a few other popular renditions of this beautiful song.
“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen
The original version was written by Canadian singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen in 1984. The song made it to his seventh studio album ‘Various Positions’ released in the same year.
It is said that are around 80 verses written by Leonard Cohen for “Hallelujah” and only 7 of them are used in the album version. However, he was known to mix verses in doing his live shows later on.
The song was not very well received initially until John Cale made a cover of the song for his 1991 tribute album. The song sneaked into Billboard Hot 100 chart for the first time after the death of Leonard Cohen in November 2016.
Watch “Hallelujah” Live Performance by Leonard Cohen
“Hallelujah” Cover by John Cale
The Welsh singer and songwriter John Cale followed a different combination of verses altogether and this stuck on. Cale’s cover of the song includes only five verses. This version was used in almost all the covers that sprung later on including the soundtrack of the movie ‘Shrek.’
“Hallelujah” Cover by Jeff Buckley
Possibly the most famous cover of “Hallelujah” is by Jeff Buckley released in 1994. His version is inspired by John Cale’s cover, hence, contains the same five verses done by Cale.
He went on to comment on the emotions captured in the song as “a hallelujah to the orgasm.” Watch his music video below.
“Hallelujah” Cover by Rufus Wainwright
The American singer and songwriter Rufus Wainwright covered the song after listening to Jeff Buckley’s cover. This is yet again a take on the five-verse anthem inspired by John Cale. His version included a piano which added to the sorrowful tone of the song. Also, Wainwright’s cover is included in the official soundtrack of the movie ‘Shrek.’
These are only some of the notable covers of “Halleluja” that shaped the song as we know it today. Other notable covers were done by Bon Jovi, Alexandra Burke and Pentatonix.
Lyrics Review and Song Meaning of “Hallelujah”
We will be taking you through the original 7-verse composition by Leonard Cohen in the below lyrics interpretations.
The singer draws a Biblical reference to when David played to flee evil spirits off of King Saul-the first king of The United Kingdom of Israel and Judah. King David-, the second king of The United Kingdom of Israel and Judah, is also credited for composing the Psalms, that pleased the Lord. Cohen even tries to play the same chords by narrating “It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth/The minor fall, the major lift” to please this girl. But he also knows that she is not into music. Even a song that pleased the Lord is not enough to win this girl over.
The chord progression in the lyrics is in fact how “Hallelujah” is played. Basing off of C major, the song progresses to C, F, G, A minor, and F.
“The minor fall and major lift” also has a Biblical reference where ‘minor fall’ refers to the fall of Adam and Eve and ‘major lift’ refers to Jesus’s crucifixion.
The word “Hallelujah” is from the Hebrew language and means ‘Glory to the Lord.’
There are many arguments over the word “baffled” as some fans see it as misheard from being “battled.” A ‘battled king’ would rather be more fitting for King David for his fight against Goliath. However, the accepted lyric is “baffled.”
Several other Biblical references are drawn in the second verse of “Hallelujah.”
The verse draws inspiration from ‘2 Samuel 11’ from the Bible. King David sees a beautiful young lady bathing from his balcony. He invites her over to his palace and sleeps with her. She is Bathsheba, the wife of a soldier named Uria who is fighting the war for the King. Bathsheba becomes pregnant and informs this to the King. King sends word to Uriah to return from the war front to give a report to him, with the intention of getting him and home to sleep with his wife and make him believe the pregnancy was his act. However, Uriah refuses to come home while his brothers are fighting the war. King David then instructs Uriah’s General to move Uriah to the front lines in hopes that he will be killed. He does get killed there.
Leonard Cohen points out the indecency of love and lust.
Tying someone to a chair could be considered a fetish sex play. Interesting is how he points out it is a ‘kitchen chair,’ which would be a very low position for a King to sit on. However, that’s what lust does.
Bathsheba breaks the King David’s line of the throne. She gets her son-Solomon to be the King after David’s passing, even though David has a legitimate heir-Adonijah.
The song draws another Biblical reference to Samson and Delilah, where Samson allows Delilah to cut his hair-his source of strength. Samson betrays his country as a judge when he allowed Delilah to cut his hair. Hence, both examples show how great men have fallen in front of love and lust. However, both David and Samson were able to experience the sweet ecstasy of passion in their lips.
The singer talks about his familiarity with relationships. He has treaded these steps before. He has been hurt before so he was set to be alone until he met her.
Leonard explains how cruel love can be. Love is an attachment that requires work. It is never going to be a victory march with banners heralded high. There will be losses and wins, and we only have to make sure that even if the battles are lost, the war is to be won in the end.
There is a very explicit sexual meaning behind the first few lines of this verse from “Hallelujah.”
These two lovers have begun to fall apart. There is no intimacy between them anymore. ‘going on below’ could be a reference to her sexual needs. She used to be quite open about her sexuality with him, but not anymore. However, it could simply mean that she used to confess all her thoughts to him sometime back, but now she does not.
“When I moved in you” is yet again a sexual reference for intercourse. The ‘holy dove’ symbolizes the Holy Spirit of the Christian Trinity. Going back to the sexual theme, the holy dove could be talking about the two lover’s spiritual connection after they engage in sexual intercourse with each other.
Reverting back to the David-Lord theme, all of these lyrics could be interpreted religiously as well. When King David fell from being a devout man, having written the Psalms praising the Lord, he lost touch with the Lord. David did not tell the Lord of what’s going on below on Earth, in his kingdom. The holy spirit of the Lord moved into the Earth through King David, before he committed a carnal sin.
‘Every breath’ drawn during sex was a Hallelujah. Note how women call out God during sexual climax.
Leonard Cohen could be talking about his foreseen criticism of this song. There are many Biblical references in the song along with some crude sexual analogies. So he could be called out for using God’s name in vain for a song, for commercial purposes. But Cohen says ‘what is it to anyone’ if he uses God’s name, and he did not even know God.
“A blaze of light” could be a reference to divine power coming from above. “Hallelujah” in its simplest meaning is a praise to the Lord, despite the lyrics having a different meaning.
Leonard Cohen has been singing about different versions of ‘Hallelujah’ in this song so far. He has sung of ‘broken Hallelujahs’ and ‘holy Hallelujahs.’
Leonard Cohen, although well versed with the Bible and Lord, still questions the existence of God. Maybe this stems from him being trampled down by love.
What he has learned from love so far is to get revenge. He talks about shooting at the lover who outdrew you. Outdraw means to draw a gun out and shoot first. So Cohen has been dumped and all he learned was to get back at them for hurting him.
He knows it’s not the right thing to do. He is not being a very divine man by expecting revenge. But, it is merely a cold and broken Hallelujah!
Cohen stands a broken man from love in this last verse of the epic ballad “Hallelujah.”
The singer says he did his best to win over this love. He wasn’t feeling love as he has been broken and hurt before. So resort to ‘touch’ or sex in order to feel something. He even claimed that he has not come to play around. But nothing worked in the end.
At the end of it all, the singer has nothing left to do but sing this song of praise to the Lord. He will be screaming Hallelujah to the Lord to mask his pain.
Due to the many references to the Bible and Biblical stories, this song is often mistaken as a religious song. But it has a very sexual undertone and has very little to do with praising religion, except for the ‘Glory to the Lord’ Hebrew translation.
Given the overall context of the song, of heartbreak, deceit, and foul love, the phrase ‘hallelujah’ seems to be more of a cry of defeat than a cry of joy.
Let us know what you think about “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen and what these lyrics mean to you? Who had the best performance of the song? Comment below.
On top of all these, check out this insane violin cover by Lindsey Stirling as a bonus.