"I think it's really interesting—the passing of the baton from Leonard as the writer to Cale as the editor to Buckley as the interpreter. There's this linear progression between those versions, each of which opens it up to a different and larger audience," Light says.

Certain circles celebrated Buckley's version, but it was by no means a mainstream hit. And then he drowned in a Mississippi River tributary in 1997. Light writes: "After Buckley's death, 'Hallelujah' took on an almost mythic stature. It was an insider's secret for those who already knew about him and an accessible pop song if it was functioning as an introduction. It now served as an elegy that went above and beyond actual words and music."

The popularity of the song quickly snowballed: It's spotlighted in Shrek; it becomes the go-to anthem after 9/11; every singer-songwriter on the planet—from household names to coffeehouse nobodies—begins covering it live. And here we are.

Many have covered Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
Many have covered Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

Light ponders the question of whether we've hit "Hallelujah" fatigue, whether the song has lost its potency through ubiquity: "It seemed like it slowed down for a minute, but then it was fascinating to see Adam Sandler spoof it on the 12/12/12 show [to benefit Hurricane Sandy victims]. As I wrote in the book, it's been taken seriously for so long, it's kind of begging for someone to pop the balloon. And then there's Adam Sandler doing it. So I was like, 'Well, maybe that will slow it down for a while,' and then two days later were the shootings in Connecticut, and that's the song everybody turned to again.

"It was a testament to the fact that the song has reached that place, and it's not vulnerable to something like [a spoof], that it's bigger than that, and it can take the hit of the joke and still work the way that it's continued to work. When Paul Simon talks about it, that song was 'Bridge Over Troubled Water,' and he saw 'Hallelujah' come along and become the next song that does that. So now, until something else rises up and takes it away, it's still holding that spot."

Why? At the conclusion of The Holy or the Broken, Light offers his own eloquent explanation: "A venerated creator. An adored, tragic interpreter. An uncomplicated, memorable melody. Ambiguous, evocative words. Faith and uncertainty. Pain and pleasure. A song based in Old Testament language that a teen idol can sing. An erotically charged lyric fit for a Yom Kippur choir or a Christmas collection. Cold. Broken. Holy."

The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah" is out now.

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