Book Review: The Holy or the Broken by Alan Light

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Article first published as Book Review: The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” by Alan Light on Blogcritics.

The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”  by Alan Light is a non-fiction book which traces the strange route of a song. That song, one of the most popular ones in the world, is “Hallelujah” by master wordsmith Leonard Cohen.

The pub­lisher is giv­ing away one copy of this book –to enter fill out the Raf­fle­copt­ter form at the end of the post.

  • 288 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451657846


Book Review The Holy or the Broken by Alan Light

My rating for The Holy or the Broken – 4

Buy this book in paper or in elec­tronic format*

The Holy or the Broken by Alan Light is a fascinating book about the cultural phenomena known as “Hallelujah”. This is a song which I love but have never given much thought to it, the tune is simple and I’m positive that the first time I heard it; I believed that it was an old song I have heard before.

Strangely, this marker of pop-culture is fairly new. Written in the 80’s, “Hallelujah” was on the only Leonard Cohen album rejected by his record company. I did my own, informal and rather small survey in which none of the participants who knew and liked the song realized it was written as early as the 1980’s. Many, like myself, thought it was written much earlier. Mr. Light said it best:

Other [fans of the song] think that it’s an ancient liturgical song, and are shocked when informed that it was written in the 1980s. Because it has reached so many more listeners through interpretation rather than through the author’s own performances, now it mostly just seen like it’s always been here.

Mr. Light attributes the phenomenal success of the song to the fact that there is really no definitive version of it. Unlike, for example, “Imagine” which every changed lyric can cause massive backlash, “Hallelujah” is open for interpretation and artists feel free to change the order of the versus when needed.

Light’s research is deep and his analysis covers the musical / lyrical aspects of the song to the cultural phenomena which has swept the pop world in recent years. The author doesn’t shy away from critical analysis which I found to be enjoyable and without any hidden agendas.

After giving the reader a background on the song’s origin and Mr. Cohen’s career, the author dives into Jeff Buckley. The ill-fated singer included a somber version of the song on his landmark album “Grace” (1994). When Buckley’s young life ended, a cult following was established around the singer and the song.

“Hallelujah” gained a massive audience from, ironically enough, a children’s film. Dreamowrks’ Shrek, the massive blockbuster, featured the song in a key moment (sang by Rufus Wainwright) and helped galvanize it in the minds of young and old alike. From Shrek, the song’s ascent was meteoric as it became the “go to sad song” for TV stations and movies, especially after the 9/11 aftermath.

“Hallelujah” was overdone and overused, but enter the age of the televised singing contests and the need for a song which can make almost everyone sound good. Again, the song was drummed into the heads of another generation, albeit at 90 second clips which the contests allow. Another twist in this fascinating saga involves Mr. Cohen’s finances, or lack thereof. Having spent five years in a California monastery, Mr. Cohen discovered that he has been liberated from his savings but those he trusted and was forced to tour again after a 15 year intermission. Soon Mr. Cohen discovered that his beloved song has took on it’s on life and meaning with each individual listener.

The Holy or The Broken is a thoughtful, illuminating book written with style by a fan whose enthusiasm flows off the pages. The book is a pleasure to read as the song plays in your head page after page.

I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

There was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who has seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well, really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Buy this book in paper or in elec­tronic format*


  • Give­away ends: January 8, 2013

  • US/Canada Ship­ping Addresses Only

  • No PO Boxes

  • Win­ners will have 24 hours to write back with their address, oth­er­wise an alter­nate win­ner will be picked

Congratulations: Name as Email

Zohar — Man of la Book
Dis­claimer: I got this book for free.
*Ama­zon links point to an affil­i­ate account

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