‘I heard there was a secret chord/that David played and it pleased the Lord.’ There. Are there any more perfect lines in all of pop music’s history? I almost don’t need to write about them or the song they come from. I could simply instruct you to sit and contemplate their beauty ‘until ye start as if the sea-nymphs quired.’ That would be enough. But as Guy Garvey, Jeff Buckley, k.d. lang and many others have found, Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece is just too delicious to be left at that. It’s a song that not only aches to be listened to, but aches to be understood and enthused over.
Hallelujah’s depth was all too apparent to me from the moment I came across it for the first time: Jeff Buckley’s superlative, fierce and tender rendering, heard on a compilation tape my now husband made for me back in the first few weeks of our relationship. I don’t remember any of the other songs on that tape. All I remember is ‘Hallelujah.’ Consider that I was in love then like I hadn’t been before. Consider that I might have been especially vulnerable at that moment. But even so, the song’s power was so extreme that there is only one possible explanation for it: duende.
‘I heard there was a secret chord/that David played and it pleased the Lord.’ I heard those lines and began to weep; they cracked me open and broke me. A secret chord? Of course there is such a thing. The idea seemed so powerful because I had always suspected that a ‘secret chord’ existed. In other words, Cohen perfectly articulated an idea I had only ever dumbly sensed: that the beauty of music could be so profound that even God would react to it as I just had: the omnipotent one wouldn’t be able to help it. But there’s more. Actually, what Cohen is suggesting is not just the existence of the secret chord, but also the necessity for the singer or poet to pursue that secret and find it out, no matter what the cost (it’s a ‘broken’ hallelujah after all). The chord is not just a mesmerising possibility but a way of life. Buckley knew that: he lost his life in pursuit of musical purity and intensity. Lang knows it in the way she sings that pronoun ‘she’ in the line ‘she cut your hair.’ She knows the erotic passion and the loss involved, but also the weight of queer history: the song, too, is allowing her to sing of her love for women in such a nakedly erotic way that it it feels like a historical release–from all the secrecy and suffering that used to be involved in being gay. She isn’t singing merely for herself here. In her hands ‘Hallelujah’ becomes the ‘I Have a Dream’ of queer politics.
Lang knows what other great interpreters of ‘Hallelujah’ know: he song is a call to arms, a way and a liberation. Leonard Cohen is a lucky, lucky man that such a song arose in him. And any singer of real duende is lucky when they take on this song, because it will release in them a trueness and sweetness that feels like a pinnacle and a blessing to singer and audience alike.
A link to Buckley’s version is included below.