‘Hallelujah’ is an infinite song. That’s the conclusion I came to last night as I sat down to Guy Garvey’s excellent hour-long documentary on the subject. Half asleep as I write this, I know it’s infinite because I have a feeling I could continue talking about it forever. Perhaps, in some recess of my mind, I will. Talking ‘Hallelujah’ will serve me well when I’m down in hell; all I’ll need as my get out of Sheol card will be a couple of blogs on ‘Hallelujah’ and the Prince of Darkness will be powerless to resist me. I’ll breeze past St Peter with a snappy rendition of ‘Kung Fu Fighting,’  and before you can say ‘space-time continuum’ Beatrice and Dante will have put the kettle on, I’ll be talking about generous pronouns and Jeff Buckley will be tuning his guitar.

Garvey’s programme was gentle, intelligent and he himself was wonderful when talking about Buckley’s rendition of ‘I Know It’s Over’ in the midst of a live recording of ‘Hallelujah,’ and about the guitar intro Buckley wrote for his version of the song. He was even better than wonderful when he told us that the song is powerful because it uses ‘mantra’ (the word ‘Hallelujah’) and that, writing for Elbow, he uses the mantra idea a lot: listen to ‘One Day Like This’ and you will understand what he’s talking about; by the end of the song, not only will you be singing too, but Dante will have fished out another mug with your name on it, in anticipation of your arrival.

Although Garvey’s show was a real treat (great not to have a presenter who speaks like they’ve been to Presenter Academy) I did feel there were one or two things I wished I’d been there to add. Some talk of pronouns for one thing. Last night, no one mentioned those little functional words and how they deliver the experience of the song to the listener and the singer; how they also allow the song to take on an almost infinite variety of political meaning. The pronouns are powerful, man. Look what happens when I alter them:

She tied me to the kitchen chair,

she broke my throne and she cut my hair,

and from my lips she drew the Hallelujah.


Well, ‘she’ is still OMG sexy, but suddenly the song seems firmly personal. Garvey showed how Cohen’s song really ceased to belong to Cohen the moment it had been released as a record. But if he’d written it like this it would simply have been a lovely conversation you overhear on a bus, say, or in a restaurant, and it would still belong to Cohen. But switch back those pronouns and feel the difference:

She tied you to the kitchen chair,

she broke your throne and she cut your hair,

and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.


Suddenly someone has broken into your memory, bypassed all the security and has reached the vault where all the precious things are, the ‘Casket of Dreams’ if you like. No guards or weapons can help you and you are utterly defenceless. The speaker can really hurt you now, and he does. But, and this is the amazing thing, he hurts you in a way that makes you thank him and sing back ‘Hallelujah,’ purely or brokenly, depending on how the song finds you at the time.

But the pronouns’ power doesn’t end there. They gift the listener many other things; great sex for one. If you’re lucky enough to have had sex like that, it makes the memory suddenly, overwhelmingly present (‘so that’s what happened, was it? Jesus!’); if you haven’t, it gives you such a powerful sense of being there that for a few glorious seconds you can imagine what that feeling is like. Either way, you experience a kind of ecstasy of imagining. You experience the pain and glory of ‘The Vision of Eros.’ You are more than half a poet.

However, if you’re the right kind of singer or listener, ‘Hallelujah’ can make you more than half a revolutionary too. I’ve already hinted at the political drive in k.d. lang’s interpretation. What happens to me, feminist me, when I listen to the song? One female contributor to Garvey’s programme described how she felt it was a man’s song, because of its use of that pronoun ‘she.’ I found that strange: I have never felt it was a man’s song, as though women were somehow excluded from its ‘Hallelujah.’ Rather, I feel the song is an opportunity to change gender. I become a man when I listen. I am Samson. I am David. I am the strong man tied to the kitchen chair, I am the poet-king. And nobody, the song gives me courage to say, can gainsay my claim–  watch those impish, insurgent pronouns go.

But women, too, can see their own strength reflected in the ‘she’ of the lyrics. How many times, in poems and songs, are women hated and scorned for their beauty or sexual power? Not here. ‘Hallelujah’ is revolutionary in its understanding of female sexual power, just as it also, simultaneously, teaches us about acceptance of sorrow, humiliation and loss. OK, so she cut your hair, Samson, but, you know what? you still got that broken hallelujah, and that’s worth just about everything. Her beauty overthrew you? Christ that hurt but bring it on– give me more– don’t stop–please. You are nothing now, but what a glorious nothing, an infinity of nothing. Submit, let go, be thankful.

‘Hallelujah,’ though, isn’t a political manifesto (no ‘victory marches’ here, no banners, no slogans). But it is poetry. Yet, there’s a paradox. It is only poetry when sung. The lyrics on their own are very fine indeed:

The baffled king composing Hallelujah.

I’ve highlighted the stresses in this line in bold to point out to the poetry anoraks amongst you that this is a deft iambic pentameter line that uses a feminine unstressed syllable at its close in a lovely, breathy way. The line drifts off ‘upstairs, downstairs, somewheres’ at the end, wherever you want it to go. And ‘baffled’ is so just. Overwhelmed by the song, not even understanding what he’s doing or what love is doing to him, the poet-king keeps going, in a state of negative capability.

But the song doesn’t stand up as poetry on its own because the words ache for the melody; dammit, the chord sequence is even described in the lyrics, they’re on such intimate terms. The words, beautiful as they are, need the music to keen properly. More than that, they demand the right interpreter.

‘Hallelujah’ does not render its cover artists magically equal, as Garvey’s programme demonstrated. In fact, the contrary is true–it renders them glaringly unequal. Garvey included many interpreters of the song, but, even he, democrat that he is, still couldn’t help suggesting that there was one supreme singer of ‘Hallelujah:’ Jeff Buckley. All ‘Hallelujahs’ to date lead to him. And the mystery deepens. Cohen’s masterpiece appears to be a bit like the Sword in the Stone: it demands a King Arthur to pull the prize from the rock. Not that Buckley is the only King (Katherine Williams emerges from the programme as a contender) but it does demand a supreme sensitivity in the artist to get ‘Hallelujah’ to fully yield. But to get the song to yield, the artist must first fully yield themselves to it. It’s that thing about risk again, that thing about duende.

So Garvey, here’s a gauntlet. I know you said you’re scared to take on ‘Hallelujah’ (who, after all, wants to end up in the seventh circle of the abyss where Bon Jovi will be doing their tight-trousered ‘Hallelujah’ till kingdom come?) But I know you can take on this song of songs and win. You won’t be able to help it, you little sod. You’re too intelligent, too sensual for that. Go on, give it a go. I dare you.

Buckley does a ‘Hallelujah’ on a fine Smiths song and utterly transforms it. Imagine this inserted into a live version of ‘Hallelujah.’ Or, better still, find Garvey on Listen Again (Radio 2) if you still can.

A link to Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’:  http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=hooPU2mdsH4

(for catsandbooks, disneytime and jan h: you know who you are)

LSD. The other night at Wolves, Guy Garvey told his delighted audience he was full of the stuff. He immediately clarified his comment: ‘I mean, Lancashire Self Doubt. ‘ Self doubt? How so? This is a frontman who has more self-possession and lyrical balance than almost any other songwriter I could name. He aims true and he hits; when he writes, when he plays, when he sings. From the moment he stepped out to welcome Jessca Hoop onto the stage to the moment he took his last bow we knew we were in safe hands. For a start, there was the way he treated Hoop. Jesca Hoop is a gifted writer herself and her voice has an eccentric but unerring heavenwards trajectory (in fact, it can swoop and dive just about anywhere). But her speaking voice is apologetic and too quiet, and so the audience, even the front few rows, could hardly hear what she was saying about her songs. Garvey, perhaps realising this was a problem, did his best to make sure she was listened to. He didn’t hector us into it, though, he simply gave her a recommendation: ‘one of the best singer songwriters around.’ And that was enough, especially for those of us lucky enough to be at the front. Where’s the LSD in that?

Safer still was the beginning of Elbow’s set. Various members of the band stood like a row of northern angels heralding in the gig as they stuck up the trumpet blasts that begin ‘Starlings.’ With each blast, spotlights lit the trumpeters for a second. Such a trick could look too choreographed with some bands, but not here. It was simply right, a beckoning of the audience, a fanfare for us. I’ve said before that Garvey plays us, his people, even better than he plays anything else, and this move felt like his and the band’s ‘tankpark salute’, a bolt of sheer joy. A jumpstart.

Twisting tunes from Leaders of the Free World and Seldom Seen Kid fluidly together, Elbow made every song feel part of the last, and yet every song had its own particular explosive excellence. ‘Grounds for Divorce’ became frighteningly sexy (what a loss of control I felt when they played it; did it show on my face?); ‘Station Approach’ reached further than ever into its longing when it arrived in the encore. But the real joy was hearing songs that I had previously thought slightly weak utterly transfigured. ‘Weather to Fly’ is a perfect example. On CD it seemed a sweet song– but perhaps too sweet. What they did with it live, however, was to begin by getting all the band to go to ‘Craig’s room’ (i.e. the space around the keyboards). Someone came on with a tray of shots. Each member of the band chinned one, after which they sang, flawlessly and a cappella, the first verse and chorus, before emerging from ‘Craig’s room’ to sing to and with the audience. Suddenly we were in a teenager’s house party again, all of us, and the melody was kicking like a horse.

When I listened to Garvey at Wolves, as was the case with other gigs, I attempted my usual dissolve into the voice of the lead singer. So, what did the Doubter deliver? In profile, Garvey looks like a 30s Hollywood hoodlum crossed with a falcon; he seems part Tough, part Windhover. But face on, he has a different kind of beauty: there’s also a childlike delight that ignites at the rightness of a note–his note or someone else’s. Somewhere along his sternum he feels it when a song moves into the right place for himself and the audience; his body seems at times to curve protectively round certain phrases. And, as a friend of mine recently observed, his arms are especially attractive. Some artists sing with their crotches (Elvis, Nick Cave); some with their chest and throat (Liam Gallagher, David Gedge); some with their lips (Richard Hawley), and some, like Thom Yorke, sing as though the melody is rippling around the inside of their skulls, like single malt around a tumbler. Garvey, however, sings with his arms and, by extension, his sense of touch. His arms are part of his voice, and, live, his voice has tentacles–it reaches everywhere.

This ability to touch obviously gives his voice a certain type of sensuality (think of the way he seems to run his fingers over the line ‘Sweet Jesus, I’m on fire’), but it also can simply translate as an affectionate embrace. In fact, there was something very levelling about the way he and the band went about things on Wednesday. His ‘touch’ is also political. Clues to the political groundedness of his approach came in the way he treated Hoop, but also in his insistence on thanking the lighting director for her work and getting us to thank her too; in getting us to wish the lighting director’s mum a happy 60th; in showering us with a canister of glittery silver paper; and most of all in a bit of ‘Kung Fu Fighting.’

That bit of Lancashire Kung Fu crowned the evening. Garvey, announcing the last song on the main part of the set, told us that we would need to sing Elbow back on stage if we wanted an encore. And, in his usual levelling way, he asked us for suggestions. I was just about to shout out ‘I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You’ when someone beat me to it and bellowed ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ (we’d already had about 3 ideas, including ‘Tainted Love’). Garvey consulted the band and informed us that ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ it was, in the true ‘spirit of socialism.’ ‘Any socialists in the audience?’ he had asked at one point. Regrettably, only three people said ‘yes.’ Still, this decision felt properly egalitarian: some kind of equality of exchange would take place when we sang the band back into existence. After a bit of rehearsal in which Garvey reminded us of the tune–and realised that part of it was slightly racist– Elbow trooped off to ease their bladders and refill their glasses (how many different drinks could Garvey neck in the one evening?). Meanwhile, we got busy. At first, it was all dreadfully shambolic: one side of the crowd tried to start with ‘Everybody was Kung Fu fighting’ about 6 seconds after the other, making us sound less like a wall and more like a brawl of sound. But then, as the desire to see those northern angels once again suddenly bolted through us, we got it together. As one, we dropped in to that ‘Whooowhuooohh’ bit in the middle, chanting it in a glorious loop. And, after a couple of minutes, when this very silly song had transformed itself into something unexpectedly lovely, the band came out to us, grinning, drinks in hand.

Lancashire Self Doubt ? Well, if Garvey feels it, he doesn’t show it. And what I feel, after this gig, is a desire for another kind of LSD: Lancashire Self Determination. What’s so wonderful about Elbow, apart from their skill, is a kind of local energy. Just as Irn Bru was ‘made in Scotland-from girders,’ Elbow are forged in Lancashire, and in such a way as to make London and the self-satisfied south seem redundant. So, never mind all that crap about the North being dead (financially and culturally) (1); those in the know will want to head up Bury way, to the People’s Republic of Elbow. You might not need a passport to cross the border (this isn’t Pimlico) (2) but I suggest that before you travel, you look up the words to ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ and practice a few scales. ‘Saint Peter in satin’ will ask you to sing before he admits you. But once inside, you’ll find you’ve arrived at the centre of the musical universe.

1) http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/aug/14/britishidentity.conservatives 


See Garvey do his thing with the metal bar. Hot damn!

‘You little sod I love your eyes,’ sings Guy Garvey in Elbow’s ‘Station Approach.’ When I heard this line only a few days ago I was so struck with it I fell in love with the entire band on its account. I’ve never heard a rock lyricist prise open a cliche in quite that way before: ‘I love your eyes’ is bland and empty, but that ‘you little sod’ puts a match to it and a stick of TNT. ‘You little sod’ is so northern: it’s a phrase that I’ve heard used many, many times by people I knew back home in Bolton or Manchester. It expresses a whole vortex of emotions:  from affection to irritation and exasperation. It could be a tickle under the chin or a drunken headlocked hug on a rain-battered streetcorner at 3 am. It’s not wanting to be soft enough to say what you’ve got to say and to say what hurts. It’s reluctant, you-fucker-why-do-I-have-to-feel-this-way love.

And, yes, I know Elbow have been around forever. And I’m sure that you’ll imagine you hear the rattle of a Mercury Music Prize bandwagon in the distance. So what kept me?  I’m not entirely sure: I’ve read how great they are so many times before I collided with them a week or so ago but just hadn’t got round to listening to them. In any case, I only ever filter bands in very slowly, one at a time–otherwise music is simply wallpaper to me and I always want it to be much much more than that. But still, it seems inexcusable now that I’ve missed out on so much Elbow. Why?

Perhaps it’s their Hawley-like modesty that stopped them from intruding hitherto into my earspace ; perhaps it’s just the fact that they’ve gathered such momentum that they can no longer pretend they’re just a handful of ordinary blokes from Bury. There is nothing ordinary about what they can do. Sweet Jesus they’re on fire

Firecrackers, Elbow often light a fuse with a song, stand back and let it blow wide open. You can hear the fuse burn and you know, just know as you listen there’s going to be one almighty burst of flame and colour. Pleasure waits in the explosion but also in the anticipation. Garvey and the band might play guitar, piano and all the usual instruments, but they’re best at playing you. Listening to the piano on ‘Station Approach’ you feel as if you are the piano; you are ‘everything to them’ somehow as you listen. All music should feel like this really, but listening to The Seldom Seen Kid is a reminder of the rarity in our musical experience of sound becoming touch.

Precision characterises everything Elbow do, and that’s why they manage this feat. Garvey opens you up as if with a scalpel, and it hurts. It hurts to hear those piano chords on ‘Mirrorball’ zooming in on the ordinary words ‘everything has changed’ and they suddenly ripple with an unbearable wonder; it hurts to hear ‘be everything to me tonight‘ because you suddenly feel that truth of which Berryman speaks- ’empty grows every bed’ (tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow?)- and your belly twists as you know your own desire for the desperate, fragile, beautiful thing it is. Oh yes, this hurts, but I submit. Garvey, you little sod, what are you trying to do to me?