Though almost everyone immediately concentrates on Cohen's lyrics, of course we wouldn't still be talking about "Hallelujah" without its simple yet unforgettable melody. It sways, gentle but propulsive, a barely perceptible waltz rhythm adding complexity to a singsongy lilt. "I might have contributed a little bit in that department," said Lissauer with a grin. "You can hear that it's not like a lot of things Leonard's ever done. He had a little help with the chords and the direction of the melody – we had worked together before and gotten comfortable doing that. But it's his song, I've always made that clear. And when we started to get the voicings and the chords and the melody, then it became blessed."
For some of the inheritors of "Hallelujah," it is explicitly the melody that speaks most strongly. Jake Shimabukuro is a young, Hawaiian-born ukulele virtuoso. He has built a huge online following through such mind-blowing, fleet-fingered performances as solo uke arrangements of "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"; Guitar Player magazine called him "the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele." But one of the highlights of his live show, and one of his more popular YouTube clips, is a simple, direct instrumental rendition of "Hallelujah."
"To me, it's not about the lyrics at all," said Shimabukuro. "I really think that it has a lot to do with the chord progression in the song. There are these very simple lines that are constantly happening . . ." and though we were seated in the restaurant of a midtown Manhattan hotel, he had to stop to get his ukulele out of its case and demonstrate.
As he ran through the song's chords, he said, "What I like about it is it picks me up. It's very uplifting, and I think it's the way that the melody moves, the way that the chords move. This is the line that made me want to cover this song on ukulele" – he played the melody for the second half of the verse, like the lines "It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth / the minor fall, the major lift; / the baffled king composing Hallelujah!" – "that ascending line just does something to me internally that makes me feel good. You're just playing the scale going up, that's all it is, but there's something about that combination of notes . . ."
"The way the melody is structured is quite genius," said David Miller of the popular classical crossover group Il Divo. "It builds, it lifts, then there's always the one word coming back down. It's almost like sex – it builds, it builds, there's that moment, and then the afterglow. To go on that journey, the whole thing taken as an experience, is wonderful."
As for the sound of Cohen's "Hallelujah" recording, producer Lissauer had a clear vision of his own. He had written the arrangement and the orchestration, and those didn't change after they got into the studio. "It was effortless to record; it almost recorded itself," he said. "The great records usually do. The ones that you have to go and beat to death and get clever and do this and that, somehow they just don't have that flow."
Though the song potentially lent itself to a grand, anthemic treatment, and a note on the actual score indicates that the musicians were to perform the song in a gospel style, the producer wanted to hold it back. The drummer, Richard Crooks, played with brushes, not sticks; "we had to get strength without bashing," Lissauer said. The producer felt that a regular bass wasn't a big enough sound to match Cohen's vocals, low even by his usual standards, so he crafted a synthesizer bass part.
"We didn't want it to be huge," said Lissauer. "I didn't want to have a big gospel choir and strings and all that kind of stuff, so even when it got large it always had restraint to it. We decided to do this modified choir that was not gospel, not children; it was just sort of a people choir. We brought everyone in – the band came and sang, my ex-wife came and sang, I sang on it. In a way we were trying to get it to be a community choir sound, very humble.
"We didn't go for overpowering, hit-record-making strings and key changes, or any of the things that would've tweaked it. It got its strength from its sincerity and its focus. We just wanted it to be sort of everyman. And I still stand by that being what it was about – it wasn't about slickness or a gospel-y hallelujah; it was about the real hallelujah."
While this may have seemed like a simple undertaking to the album's producer, to Leanne Ungar, the recording engineer, this approach presented its own complications. "I think John knew just how special it was, because he took such care and extra time with every aspect of the arrangement and mix," she said. "For me, that song was a real struggle. I remember Leonard kept asking me to put more and more reverb on his voice. I love hearing the texture of his unadorned voice and I didn't want to do it. So I've never liked listening back to that recording, because I don't like the solution I arrived at.
"I remember wanting John to replace the synthesized guitar with a real one," she went on. "I also remember wishing we could record a large choir instead of layers of small groups. We wanted the song to keep growing bigger and bigger each chorus, but there are limitations of dynamic range on a recording, so the mix was very challenging."
Between the choir, the '80s-era synthesizer, and Cohen's studied performance, the studio "Hallelujah" is certainly dramatic, though, as with many of his recordings, it flirts with cheesiness. The production hits the goals it was aiming for, but there's a scope, a theatricality to the arrangement that puts it at a bit of a distance – as is often the case, Cohen's work feels a bit sui generis, something that a listener either gets or doesn't, and going back to this original recording, it's difficult to hear what would make the song connect to a universal audience.
For all of its elements, the most striking aspect of the original "Hallelujah" recording, beyond the lyrics, is Leonard Cohen's own vocal performance. Such lines as "I don't even know the name" or "I did my best; it wasn't much" are delivered with a wry, weary humor, creating a real tension between the verses and the soaring, one-word chorus. Those who know the song only through the covers that followed, many of which don't include this section, would be surprised by the additional complexities in the original. The singing creates the sense of struggle, conflict, and resignation that then pays off in the song's climactic, closing lines.
"This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled," Cohen has said, "but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that's what I mean by 'Hallelujah.' That regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say, 'Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.'…
"The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say, 'Look, I don't understand a fucking thing at all – Hallelujah!' That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings."
They finished recording the song, and the rest of the Various Positions album. "I said, 'Man, we're on top of this, this is really going to do it,' " John Lissauer recalled. " 'This is gonna be the breakthrough, this record is really going to be important.' 'Hallelujah' just jumped out at you, plus there was a lot of other great stuff on the album.
"And it went to Walter Yetnikoff, who was the president of CBS Records, and he said, 'What is this? This isn't pop music. We're not releasing it. This is a disaster.' "
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