An Interpretation of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"
"Hallelujah" as performed by Jeff Buckley
: a song with Biblical and sexual connections
"Hallelujah" was the first song I heard by the late Jeff Buckley and everything still stands still for me in that moment back in 2002. I remember sitting in my friend's basement bedroom, completely confused about who I wanted to be and wondering if I'd ever feel comfortable in my own skin. I was the typical Morrissey loving, black band t-shirt wearing, poetry writing teen who listened to her parents records more than they did. But a felt something shift and change inside of me when I heard Jeff Buckley sing this particular song. A clarity about life that cut through all the hormones that were clouding my perspective. Little did I know at the time that, although Jeff Buckley was an excellent song-writer in his own right, the song had other origins.
I now know of course that "Hallelujah" was originally written and performed by Leonard Cohen, who I have great respect for as a writer. The album, Various Positions, which includes the original version of "Hallelujah" is, however, sadly dated. The heavy 1980s synths and cloying female chorus have made it impossible for me to enjoy the original version. In regards to this song, this is truly one of the rare times I will admit to liking a cover version better than the original. Leonard Cohen's voice is servicable and endearing in a "Bob Dylan" kind of way, but Jeff's angelic vocal powers are better suited for a song essentially about two key subjects: sex and religious belief.
I have long pondered the cryptic meaning of lyrics in "Hallelujah" and I've done some research to come up with the meaning that makes the most sense to me. I am not in any way, shape, or form Leonard Cohen, but as long as you read my interpretation with that knowledge, we'll be just fine! I doubt I'm the only one who wants some answers on some of the lyrical references, so I thought I'd post my interpretation.
Leonard Cohen grew up in the Jewish tradition, so this explains a lot of his references to the Old Testament, specifically the story about King David and his affair with the married Bathsheba. David was in love Bathsheba, but she was married to Uriah, the Hittite. David sends for Uriah so that he can sleep with Bathsheba and keep her pregnacy's origin a secret. He refuses to leave his troops, so David commands that he be abandoned on the battlefield to die. He then marries Bathsheba, but is plagued by guilt because what he had done had "displeased the lord."
(Verse 2) Your faith was strong but you needed proof/ You saw her bathing on the roof/her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
(Verse 4) Well, maybe there's a god above/ but all I ever learned from love, was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you/It's not a cry that you hear at night/It's not somebody who's seen the light/ It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah...
The core theme of this story that is echoed throughout was David's struggle with his lust for Bathsheba and his desire to serve and please God. He knew that by committing adultery with Bathsheba that he was entering into an unholy union, but a dark place within him encouraged him to follow his impulses. This darkness is referred to in the first verse of the song: "It's not a cry that you can hear at night/it's not somebody who's seen the light/it's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah."
The other biblical reference I caught was about Samson and Delilah. Their story ties in well with the downfall of the musician and composer, King David. David lost his idealistic faith in God as a result of his lust for a married woman, and Samson loses his hair because he became vulnerable to the charms of the deceitful Delilah: "And she tied you to a kitchen chair/she broke your throne and she cut your hair/and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah."
The story of Samson and Delilah was about her betraying his trust, and his one-sided affection for her. She was appointed by the Israelite's enemy, the Phillistines, to find the secret to Samson's demise. Delilah asked Samson three times to reveal his weakness to her, seducing him into eventually telling her that his power came from the length of his hair. He explained to her that he grew his hair long in honor to God and as reminder all that God had blessed him with. She eventually cut off his hair while he slept, resulting in his downfall. Whether it was merely a psychological crutch or actual power that God bestowed upon him was between Samson and God
While I do acknowledge the songs allusions to the Bible, I think the lyrics only refers to those stories as a comparison to what the singer was experiencing in his own relationship with a woman who didn't share his love to the same degree. I also think that the religious undertones of this song refer to the man who struggles with an unhealthy obsession, one that was destructive and led him away from his moral and religious integrity. He knew that his obsession would lead to his undoing, but his love was so strong hat he would let her destroy him to hold on to the feeling she gives him as long as he can. This feeling also includes the rush of sexual orgasm, which is subtly, yet beautifully referenced in the following verse: "Well there was a time when you let me know/what's really going on below/but now you never show that to do me do you/But remember when I moved in you/and the holy dove was moving too/and every breath we drew was hallelujah"
"Below" is used in reference to his partner's sexual excitement, and how she now seems cold and holds back her true feelings from him. He is sad because he deeply felt intimacy and passion when he made love to her: "Remember when I moved in you and the holy dove was moving too/and every breath we drew was hallelujah".
I hope this analysis was helpful, but what I truly love about this song is how the lyrics personally affect people on different levels and in different ways. Love is and always will be a "broken hallelujah".