The Holy or the Broken by Alan Light is a fascinating non-fiction book which traces the strange route of a song. That song, one of the most popular ones in the world, is the cultural phenomenon known as “Hallelujah” by master wordsmith Leonard Cohen. It's a song I love but have never given much thought to. The tune is simple and I’m positive that the first time I heard it, I believed it was an old song I have heard before.
Strangely, this marker of pop-culture is fairly new. Written in the 1980s, “Hallelujah” was on the only Leonard Cohen album rejected by his record company. I did my own informal and rather small survey in which none of the participants who knew and liked the song realized it was written as early as the 1980s. Many, like myself, thought it was written much earlier. Mr. Light said it best:
"Other [fans of the song] think that it's an ancient liturgical song, and are shocked when informed that it was written in the 1980s. Because it has reached so many more listeners through interpretation rather than through the author's own performances, now it mostly just seen like it's always been here."
Mr. Light attributes the phenomenal success of the song to the fact that there is really no definitive version of it. Unlike, for example, “Imagine,” with which every changed lyric can cause massive backlash, “Hallelujah” is open for interpretation and artists feel free to change the order of the versus when needed.
Light’s research is deep and his analysis covers the musical and lyrical aspects of the song that makes it the cultural phenomenon sweeping the pop world in recent years. The author doesn’t shy away from critical analysis which I find to be enjoyable and without any hidden agendas.
After giving the reader a background on the song’s origin and Mr. Cohen’s career, the author dives into Jeff Buckley. The ill-fated singer included a somber version of the song on his landmark album Grace (1994). When Buckley's young life ended, a cult following was established around the singer and the song.