screenshot88 Few modern songs are so deep in the cultural psyche as “Hallelujah.” The first time I remember REALLY hearing it was an episode of The West Wing, Posse Comitatus. This beautiful, haunting song provided the only sound while a number of scenes played out before our eyes. The song provided more emotion than even Aaron Sorkin’s writing and the stellar cast could convey.

I heard it again in Shrek, but it wasn’t until years later when I saw The Watchmen that I heard it by the man who wrote it, Leonard Cohen. And at that moment, Hallelujah became an integral part of the soundtrack of my life (and as an added bonus, exposed me to the genius that is Mr. Cohen).

Alan Light’s The Holy or The Broken explores how this originally obscure song became a global anthem, hymn, song of praise, song of mourning.

Light explores the origins of the song- after modest success, Columbia records didn’t want to release Various Positions, the album on which Hallelujah originally appeared.  Light goes on to recount how John Cale began the resurrection of the song, and ultimately how it  ended up in Buckley’s hands, and from there became a cultural phenomenon.

Part religion, part pure sex, Hallelujah means different things to different people. And although even most of us ardent fans are beginning to experience Hallelujah fatigue, few songs evoke the emotion this one does.  So many covers of this song. Some are brilliant, Rufus Wainwright, kd lang; others are atrocious- I’m looking at you, Bono, as much as it pains me to type it.  But still,  the song resonates with nearly everyone.

That is one of things I like best about the book. Light captures so well what the song means to different people.   I found myself marking pages, and highlighting passages.  One I adore is this:  “Leonard Cohen said the song represented absolute surrender in a situation you cannot fix or dominate, that sometimes it means saying, ‘I don’t fucking know what’s going on, but it can still be beautiful.'”   Yes! Yes! That is exactly how I feel about this song.  It’s a praise, a lament, a mourning, a cry of hope.

Fans of Hallelujah- and perhaps Cohen and Buckley- and maybe even music fans in general will enjoy this book, the history of the song. As I was reading the book, I found myself out on Spotify, putting together a playlist of every version of Hallelujah that I could find. I listened to it near constantly as I read the book.  Hearing the multiple interpretations discussed in the book only added to my enjoyment of reading it.  And, for what it’s worth, the line that still resonates with me most is: “I couldn’t feel so I learned to touch.”