On “Hallelujah”

For the first post in the “Texutal Analysis 101” series, I’d like to start with a song that is particularly vulnerable to shallow and hasty interpretations. The ironic and jaded lament for a lost and broken love, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.

The casual reader might want to listen to the song by playing the embedded video, enjoy it, and move on. But if you’d like to delve into the lyrics, their allusions, and the deeper themes of the song, please, enjoy the rest and feel free to disagree and tell me about it.

Despite the tortured and dark themes in the lyrics, the hauntingly beautiful melody and religious references of Hallelujah fool many people into believing that the song is a spiritual paean the likes of which you’d play at a wedding. I’d recommend adding it to your playlist of “Songs To Breakup By” instead. It’s a weary, disillusioned, aching song; the passion is pain, the faith supplanted by remorse. The repeated “hallelujahs” are not reverent and sincere, they are ironic and anything but holy.

Cohen’s technique in his poetry and writing has been described as “deconstructing the identity of the main characters by means of combining the sacred and the profane, religion and sexuality in a rich, lyrical language.” You’ll probably agree that this pattern applies to “Hallelujah.”

To me, the superlative cover of the song is by Jeff Buckley.


Buckley especially just blew the song to pieces and every artist after him has tried and failed to put it back together.

During his famed early gigs at the New York club Sin-e, Buckley used to break hearts with his version of this Cohen prayer. Buckley called it an homage to “the hallelujah of the orgasm” and had misgivings about his sensuous rendition: “I hope Leonard doesn’t hear it.”
Rolling Stone – who ranked Buckley’s cover 259 on the list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time

As Cohen’s thoughts on this song show, he did craft the lyrics with deep religious meaning; however, his own feelings on the song (and the way he sang it) became more secular with time and adoption into the mainstream culture. Cohen himself became a Zen Buddhist from 1996-1999, so I guess reinterpretation is always possible. So, why don’t we start with the significance of the lyrics in a religious manner and see if we can discern a more secular meaning.

Seeing as the Old Testament references are specific and numerous, any analysis that lacks an understanding of them is incomplete. The identity of the David in the first stanza isn’t difficult, there’s only one in the entire Bible.

I heard there was a secret chord
that David played and it pleased the Lord

It’s worth reading up on King David.

“The prominent part played by song and music in the worship of the temple, as arranged by David, is readily explained by his poetic and musical abilities. His skill in music is recorded in I Kings, xvi, 18 and Amos, vi, 5. Poems of his composition are found in II Kings, i, iii, xxii, xxiii. His connection with the Book of Psalms, many of which are expressly attributed to various incidents of his career, was so taken for granted in later days that many ascribed the whole Psalter to him.”

Worth note:

  • David defeated Goliath with a sling and stone
  • David was a musician and most of the Psalms of the Bible are attributed to him
  • David cured King Saul of his demons through his music
  • David sang “imprudent songs” about women
  • David had multiple wives, several of whom he won through killing and war
  • David united (through war) the tribes of Israel under his rule
  • After unifying the Israelites, David waged wars against the neighbors and enemies of Israel to solidify his reign
  • During the war vs. the Ammonites, “he fell into the sins of adultery and murder” thus “bringing great calamities on himself and his people”

This last note refers to the indirect murder of Urias and the adultery with his wife Bethsheba.

After his sin with Bethsabee and the indirect assassination of Urias, her husband, David made her his wife. A year elapsed before his repentance for the sin, but his contrition was so sincere that God pardoned him, though at the same time announcing the severe penalties that were to follow. The spirit in which David accepted these penalties has made him for all time the model of penitents.”

The song opens with a reference to a “secret chord” that is pleasing to the lord. This is a VERY powerful concept… for to please the lord is perhaps the greatest act a lowly mortal can accomplish, no? The idea that it’s secret means that it is hard to discover, known to only a few, or no
t meant for mass consumption. David has an inside track to the lord through song.

You can see that this has many parallels with the actual singer… as if his song was a prayer or a gospel. The music has power and its meaning isn’t all on the surface.

But you don’t really care for music, do ya?

The subject of who “you” is from verse to verse is a-whole-nother topic, as it appears to change repeatedly and is further complicated by which version of the song we choose to discuss.

The interrogatory tone of this line suggests that the addressee is unprepared for or unappreciative of any deeper meaning. “You” isn’t part of the inner circle, the initiated, the educated, or the informed. Religions are built on sacred knowledge, the leadership are people who know the secret will of God or prophets who can predict the future actions of God.

To juxtapose the powerful concept of a God-pleasing secret chord with the dismissal of an apathetic audience sets the tone for the rest of the song which serves to educate the ignorant “you” on why such matters are important.

Well it goes like this:
The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Given the pedantic setup of the previous stanza, this stanza begins the lesson.

David_plays_kinnorThese lines work on many levels. First, we have the singer (the virtual David) playing chords: the fourth, the fifth… growing in pitch. I believe that this is following the ascension of David to power. The minor fall (a minor chord) is reflective of David’s fall from grace, his sin and lack of repentance. The major lift (a major chord) raising the tone with David’s repentance and the grace of God, growing throughout the line of the “baffled king composing Hallelujah.” As wisely stated before, David’s confusion is the confusion of man trying to discern the will of God or even the ways of a woman. I also prefer to interpret the Hallelujah of the last line as the song David is composing… he is writing the music in praise, the song, THIS SONG, is the praise…. it is the Hallelujah.

Well your faith was strong but you needed proof

The first line is ironic, because the need for proof would imply a weak faith, not a strong one. The bible is filled with the Doubting Thomas stories of faith being tested and failing.

You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya

The woman bathing on the roof is obviously Bethsheba, who we learn about in 2 Samuel 11:1:

Then it happened in the spring, at the time when kings go out to battle, that David sent Joab and his servants with him and all Israel, and they destroyed the sons of Ammon and besieged Rabbah. But David stayed at Jerusalem.

Now when evening came David arose from his bed and walked around on the roof of the king’s house, and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful in appearance.

So David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is this not Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?”

David sent messengers and took her, and when she came to him, he lay with her; and when she had purified herself from her uncleanness, she returned to her house.

The first stanza tells of a King who is derelict in his duty, staying in Jerusalem while his army is off fighting a war.

The power of the moon to drive men mad is ancient and popular is cultural myth and spiritual belief. It’s where we derive the word lunatic, and the myths of vampires and werewolves.

“Her Beauty…overthrew ya,” here is the first sign we have as to the lust that is present through out this song. higland04 does a very insightful analysis, but I think he fails to fully appreciate how sexual this song is.

And she tied you to her kitchen chair
She broke your throne and she cut your hair

Here we have a merging of the story of David and Bathsheba and Samson and Delilah. The parallel between these stories is the seduction and emasculation of man by woman. For a woman to overpower a man, she must overcome his physical power and she has done this through her feminine wiles.

Now, I’m not sure if the “kitchen” aspect has anything to do with domesticity or if it’s just a parallel image to getting your hair cut at home. It was not uncommon for a mother to cut her children’s hair (and her husband’s hair) in the kitchen. The kitchen is certainly more the woman’s domain than the man’s.

The overriding image here is of woman conquering both forms of man’s power: physical and political, force and authority. The throne obviously being the symbol of man’s political authority and the hair a reference to the muscular physical strength of Samson. If you buy into the domestic aspect, then perhaps the kitchen is a place of power for women and thus the man is playing (and losing) in her arena.

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Ok, lots of ways to interpret this line. The woman can be giving so much pleasure that the man is praising god is a moment of ecstasy. I don’t buy that one. Perhaps he is so enthralled by her that he is in fact singing HER praise, not God’s. More likely.

If you want to take an even darker line, her drawing out his “Hallelujah” is her tempting him to lose God’s grace… her corruption of him. It is the woman’s role in procreation to draw the man out and to literally draw out his soul or seed. Perhaps here we have the woman drawing out his faith too.

Baby I’ve been here before
I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor,
I used to live alone before I knew ya

The singer has returned to life alone. He has been rejected and now he is BACK to being alone.

If you want to pull in some bible imagery that isn’t really supported by a direct reference, but seems to fit the theme, perhaps the story of John the Baptist. He was a hermit, he lived alone. But he too was demised by the wiles of a woman, Salome. When he returned to the room of the king he was beheaded. Now that’s a cold and broken Hallelujah.

What I take out of this stanza is a half hearted attempt for the broken lover to re-establish some sort of credibility. This is the “I’m ok, I can live without you” part of the break up. All of the images here are of experience, being here before, seeing and walking and living as an individual.

And I’ve seen your
flag on the marble arch
and love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe marble arch is a commemoration of a great triumph and a flag is a statement identity, a placeholder for a greater concept. These two images do come together in a victory march, but who is the conquerer and who is the vanquished? Do we have the woman planting her flag on the man’s (king’s) triumphal arch, thus claiming him and obsoleting his past victory? Are we referencing King David who was conquered by his lust for a woman, killing her husband in his war, and prevailing over both his enemies and the man who beat him to Bathsheba?

Regardless of who has the power and the identity, the singer is rejecting their sway on love. I don’t know that personal experience would agree with this, I mean, isn’t it almost cliche that confidence and charisma (identity) and power (in the form of wealth, good looks, or ability to provide) are aphrodisiacs?

Is love really cold and broken? Not when it’s good, but certainly when it’s gone. And that certainly must be the point. No matter how wonderful it was when you had it, if you brought about its demise, it’s our love that makes it hurt when it’s gone. Even after the fall of empires and the death of identities, the arches and statues and flags remain. No such artifact exists when love is broken since it never manifests itself in a lasting physical form.

There was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show that to me do you?

Sex is knowledge, even in the bible. When we talk about “knowledge” of someone, it is sexual knowledge, to have committed intercourse…it is even a joke to insert “biblically” after “I know her” as a sexual joke and the bible uses the verb “to know” to represent sexual intercourse. I take these lines to mean that there was a time when “we” were sexually intimate but now she has cut him off.

But remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Raw Passionate Fucking. Intercourse. Ejaculation. In Out In Out.
Ok, there, I got it out. This stanza isn’t a fond remembrance of a holy time with god, it’s about sex. Remember when we were in the moment, when we fucked? (sorry, to “make love” just doesn’t have the intensity reflected in the lyrics) It was a religious experience, we were so in tune, so rhythmic, we even breathed together… we had simultaneous climax. Hot and heavy breaths were as praises to the
bliss we were experiencing.

Remember, the holy dove, the holy ghost, is God’s seed, his sperm. When God impregnates Mary, he sends the Holy Ghost. When St. Teresa is experiencing her ECSTASY, it is spiritual AND sexual and the holy dove is there. You can view the amazing sculpture by Bernini for a strong visual on this. Remember, ejaculate is life, it is “seed,” it is the distillment of life.

Maybe there’s a God above

This is questioning the existence of God. You can read the words of a Christian discussing the song a little and his need to rewrite it to be more appropriate for his wedding. He goes so far as to add New Testament images to the song. I don’t think Cohen’s original and certainly not the version Buckley sings really brings Christ into the picture. Remember, Cohen did sing a version of the song with the line “it’s not some gleeful Christian who has seen the light.”

The shift in the song at this verse is unquestionable. We have turned away from God. The woman has conquered us in the previous stanzas, now there is no close relationship with God… we are beaten.

But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you

This brings us back to the David story. David stole Bethsheeba from Urias, having him killed because he “outdrew” David by marrying Bathsheeba before David had a chance. The question at hand would be, is the singer the shooter or the victim of another shooter. I’d argue for the later, since you aren’t likely to lament the guys you stepped on if you’ve won the girl and still have her.

The image is one from the old west or perhaps from the colonial times where men would settle disputes by dueling. A duel was an honorable exchange, face to face. It was a means to level the field between unequals. David did away with Uriel in a dishonorable manner. He was the man’s superior, but he used a lowly tactic to have him killed. He cheated at the duel. He was willing to forfeit his honor, his manhood, for lust. Not love, lust. All is fair in love and war, eh?

Ok, but there’s more, we’re not still talking just about David. The song isn’t the song of David. It’s using David and Sampson as a dual figure to the singer. The next lines are more abstract than the myth. That’s why it’s so easy for the author to switch between the images and it’s also why he doesn’t begin each line with David did this and David did that.

And 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 subject of each of the three “It’s” is LOVE. The cry you hear at night is vague (but none-the-less a powerful image), but I see one of the meanings of the cry to be the moans of ecstasy during sex, (you might say it could be the cry of Uriel as he’s killed in battle, but why at night?). A cry at night is almost animalistic, a male cat looking for some tail, a wolf baying at the moon. Note, it’s not crying at night, it is A CRY. Crying is an extended emotional outlet, it is feminine. A CRY is more akin to a war cry, or a masculine shout of pain (I hear STELLA! from Marlin Brando echoing in my ear).

These lines are depressing, not uplifting. They’re saying that love isn’t just a burst of emotion or some brainwashed born-again. There is no clarity of vision or purpose or faith here. There isn’t a close personal relationship with Jesus. He’s saying that it’s complicated and fucked up and not perfect and dark and sacrificial and C
OLD. Giving in to love risks rejection and THATS WHAT HE’S SINGING ABOUT. He has been rejected by his object of love/lust. She has stopped putting out. They no longer fuck, they no longer connect in a way that words can’t express, he no longer moves within her…. no more ecstasy.

Now, what do you make of the song when it’s a powerful woman singing it?


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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.