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Cohen song boasts ‘complexity in simplicity’

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FOR the Leonard Cohen completist, this elegant little volume is must-read.

American music journalist yet easily Alan Light has penned a thorough, digestible, account of how and why the Montreal poet and songwriter’s 1984 composition Hallelujah has become a standard of the popular songbook, taking its place among such modern masterpieces as Blowin’ in the Wind, Yesterday and Bridge Over Troubled Water.

In the short tradition of books on single songs , The Holy or the Broken (the title comes from a line in Hallelujah’s third verse) follows on this past fall’s beefy Cohen biography, I’m Your Man, by British journalist Sylvie Simmons.

Simmons is nothing if not dogged and comprehensive. But Light knows how to pick his spots. Most readers will get all they need to know about Cohen from him.

But of all the master’s great songs, why has Hallelujah become his best known? Light puts this question to hundreds of musicians, and a consensus emerges. It blends two of Cohen’s ongoing themes, spirituality and eroticism, and is so lyrically malleable that listeners hear in it both triumph and tragedy.

"It’s simple, but with an extreme sophistication," Light quotes one pop musician, American guitarist Colin Frangicetto, as saying.

"I think that’s the secret to most great songs, complexity hidden inside simplicity."

Ironically, and unlike most modern classics, Hallelujah was ignored in its original incarnation.

Various Positions, the album on which it appeared as the first cut on Side 2, was turned down by Cohen’s longtime record company, Columbia.

The album came out on a minor label and sold poorly, despite its containing at least two other now well-loved tracks, Dance Me to the End of Love and If It Be Your Will.

But in 1984 the slick pop of Michael Jackson and Madonna dominated popular taste, and it was mostly just for other musicians for whom the austerely down-tempo Cohen had not passed out of fashion.

A turning point came in 1991. Former Velvet Undergrounder John Cale recorded Hallelujah on a Cohen tribute album called I’m Your Fan. This piano version, employing three different verses than the four of 80 that Cohen had originally penned — caught the ear of an obscure singer-songwriter whose father was the late ’60s folksinger Tim Buckley.

Jeff Buckley recorded his romantically intense take on Hallelujah on his 1994 album Grace, which became a cult favourite after his drowning death at age 30 in 1997.

Thanks primarily to Buckley — whom Light credits in his subtitle — Hallelujah stayed bubbling in the broth of pop culture. In 2001, the DreamWorks film studio used a few verses of the Cale version in its animated movie Shrek, but for the soundtrack for the album, it opted for a new take by one of its record label’s young acts, Rufus Wainwright.

Another Canadian, k.d. lang, covered Hallelujah in 2004. By this time, few people knew who actually wrote it, and it has been sung since by so many contestants on TV’s American Idol, Light reports, that show producer Simon Cowell "had to issue a statement that he has no special interest in the composition or in its publishing rights."

Light spends much time dissecting the appeal and style of the song’s various covers, from Bono’s to Justin Timberlake’s. Its ongoing popularity serves as a metaphor for Cohen’s inspiring career arc. If Bob Dylan, now 71, is the hare of pop songwriters, Cohen at 78 has proved himself to be the tortoise.

The race isn’t over, but it is taking nothing away from the Bard of Minnesota’s genius to say that more people at this moment are singing the Montrealer’s hallelujahs.


Morley Walker edits the Free Press Books section.

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