Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Book Review: The Holy or the Broken

Today, “Hallelujah” is one of the most-performed rock songs in history. It has become a staple of movies and television shows as diverse as Shrek and The West Wing, of tribute videos and telethons. It has been covered by hundreds of artists, including Bob Dylan, U2, Justin Timberlake, and k.d. lang, and it is played every year at countless events—both sacred and secular—around the world.

Yet when music legend Leonard Cohen first wrote and recorded “Hallelujah,” it was for an album rejected by his longtime record label. Ten years later, charismatic newcomer Jeff Buckley reimagined the song for his much-anticipated debut album, Grace. Three years after that, Buckley would be dead, his album largely unknown, and “Hallelujah” still unreleased as a single. After two such commercially disappointing outings, how did one obscure song become an international anthem for human triumph and tragedy, a song each successive generation seems to feel they have discovered and claimed as uniquely their own?

Through in-depth interviews with its interpreters and the key figures who were actually there for its original recordings, acclaimed music journalist Alan Light follows the improbable journey of “Hallelujah” straight to the heart of popular culture. The Holy or the Broken gives insight into how great songs come to be, how they come to be listened to, and how they can be forever reinterpreted.

This book came out in December of 2012 by Simon and Schuster.

The title was chosen for a book discussion by our Volumemaniacs Facebook group for this month. The book was written by Light, one of the hosts of Debatable, a show from the former SiriusXM music-talk channel Volume. Besides that show, I also knew him from his earlier book on Prince Let's Go Crazy from 2014.

Admittedly, I knew very little about Cohen or Buckley prior to reading this one. I knew the names, sure, but did not have much of their music in my collection nor know their stories. And I only first discovered "Hallelujah" thanks to Rufus Wainwright's version from the Shrek soundtrack. Since then, I have heard many covers and such of the song from TV shows, American Idol and other tribute shows in times of tragedy.

I wondered how much there could be written about a single song. Could it sustain an entire book? Turns out, this song could. Light does an outstanding job covering the varied history and the evolution of the tune from its 1984 release through 2012. The book kept me interested as the song wound through its iterations and recordings. Thanks to the author and his thorough research, there are several versions of the song and performers I will be checking out afterwards.

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