The Holy or the Broken

Episode 7 in Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast in July 27, 2016 was about his ideas about creativity, contrasting artists who revise and refine with artists who appear to produce their work whole. He illustrated with references to the development of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah by:

  • Cohen,
  • John Cale,
  • Jeff Buckley

before it became a pop standard and a secular hymn. Gladwell cites his sources on the Episode Web page, usually including books available from one of his sponsors. One of his sources was Alan Light’s 2012 The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”, which is also the a principal source for the Wikipedia entry (below). As the title implies, Light explores the tension between the religious exclamation and the biblical allusions, and the vivid, graphic memories of love experienced in sex acts.  Light comes close to saying that Cohen followed the Quebecois pattern of using the name of sacred objects as obscenities.

The Wikipedia entry Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen song) agrees
Hallelujah was an obscure song from 1984 until 2001, when it became popular in recordings and performances:

  • the Buckley cover on MTV and in television,
  • the Cale cover in the movie Shrek,
  • the Rufus Wainright cover (for the Shrek soundtrack recording),
  • the k.d. Lang cover and her 2010 Winter Olympic Concert, and
  • television performances in singing contest shows The Voice and X Factor. 

Addenda: if you can get through the paywall, David Remnick’s October 2016 biographical article in the New Yorker on Cohen at 82 is worthwhile. The Cohen tribute concert in Montreal (filmed and curated) was good.

In 2023, some streaming services started to broadcast the 2022 movie Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song.


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