In much the same way that my brother’s visit inspired me to pick up Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for Peoplein a Hurry the Winter Olympics pushed me to move The Holy or the Broken up my to read pile. There were several figure skaters who performed to some version of “Hallelujah” and I’ve always had an interest in this iconoclast of a song, so the book was already on its way to me by happenstance (it was however delayed by over 20 days in arriving thanks to some unforeseen issues in the library transit system. The snail was epically slow.)
But the delay meant that I had the book ready to go after watching these performers interpret the song in a physical setting, making me all the more ready to read what amounts to an oral history of the path of this unlikely success story.
First, my bona fides: I’m not entirely sure when I first heard this song, but it was probably the Jeff Buckley version, and most likely sometime between 1998 and 2000. That however was no less than the third iteration of the song and it would have been about fifteen years old, and at least five since that specific rendition was recorded. But, I got on the “Hallelujah” train before Rufus Wainwright and Shrek.
In The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, & the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah, Alan Light traces the history of the song’s creation, its reinventions, and its turn as a pop standard of the American Songbook. Since its debut on Cohen’s Various Positions album in 1984 “Hallelujah” has never held still. Light chronicles Cohen’s career leading up to and moving to what amounts to the present day as this book was published in 2012, as well as highlighting the other major recordings of the song. He unpacks the differences in each version, and how the song sustains such a diversity of interpretation. This book looks at the personalities, and the situations that led to different renditions while engaging in a discussion of how the listening public has seemingly moved beyond listening to the meaning of the lyrics and how “Hallelujah” has become an emotional touchstone which cues us to emote, or allows us the space to do so.
Light also lets in the conversation about whether or not there is too much “Hallelujah” in pop culture these days, and what the effects of Jeff Buckley’s untimely death had on the legend of his iteration of the song. In some ways this is a slim work, by tracing two artists, one with a tragically short career and the other who stepped away from the limelight for years at a time and zoning in on their one shared song Light gives himself tight parameters. It doesn’t stop him from discussing other interpreters of the song including Bono, or Paramore, but it does mean that in some chapters he is retreading the same ground. There is only so much to say, or so much insight to be gained, from the ubiquity of the song on singing contest show circuit in the early to mid-2000s. But at 231 pages, those times are blissfully brief.
I can only suggest this book to people who have a sincere fondness for the song, or one of its nearly two dozen covers. I enjoyed my reading during the recent nor’easter, but I cannot say that the experience would necessarily be shared by many others.