I read lot of books. I read most genres (except horror and erotica). I’ve read books about genres. I’ve read books about other books.
Now, I’ve read a book about a song.
The Holy or the Broken by Alan Light is a considered and enlightened look at the song “Hallelujah” by singer and song-writer Leonard Cohen. The story of how a song recorded for an unreleased album became such a part of our culture is fascinating.
Artists fromJon Bon Jovi to Bono to Susan Boyle have released covers. It’s routinely performed on American Idol and other competitive singing shows.
I was most familiar with Leonard Cohen’s version and Jason Castro’s of American Idol fame. Cohen wrote the song and recorded it for an album in the mid-1980s that Columbia decided not to release. The album was released in Europe and did moderately well. A singer named John Cale re
corded a cover of “Hallelujah.” It did well and many people assumed Cale wrote it. A young singer Jeff Buckley believed it to be Cale’s when he covered Cale’s cover.
Still with me?
Buckley died in 1997 and the song continued to grow in popularity.
Light discusses the most popular as well as the worst covers of the song. He dissects the lyrics. Or at least the eight most well known of the dozens of verses Cohen wrote. Light lists the most compelling of the covers with links to their YouTube recordings.
Light interviewed dozens of singers and industry professionals. The Holy or the Broken is an excellent look at why and how this song has become part of the American mainstream, used in movies, memorial montages, television shows (both scripted and not), and even released as just a song.
I wasn’t familiar with all the verses and had assumed the song was hopeful. I should have listened to my own gut. I know this about me: the music that appeals to me most viscerally is melancholic. Once I listened to the lyrics of “Hallelujah,” I was forced to admit it’s not all that optimistic. But thanks to Light’s book, I can also admit that it doesn’t really matter. “Hallelujah” is what each listener makes of it.
For anyone interested in music, song writing, or pop culture, The Broken or the Holy will explain how “Hallelujah” managed to capture lightening in a bottle. Unfortunately, no one has been able to duplicate it as well as Leonard Cohen and the legion of singers following him.