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What did Leonard Cohen really mean when he sang 'Hallelujah'?

What did Leonard Cohen really mean when he sang 'Hallelujah'?
Leonard Cohen, shown performing in 2008, was best known to pop audiences for his song "Hallelujah." (Diego Tuson / AFP / Getty Images)

Nothing about Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" — the original version of the song Cohen recorded for his 1984 album "Various Positions" — leads you to conclude that it would go on to become one of pop music's most durable compositions.

Not the rinky-dink keyboard tone. Not the singer's low, dry croak. And certainly not the lyric full of stark biblical imagery.

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Yet in the years leading up to Cohen's death this week at age 82, "Hallelujah" attained the kind of pop-cultural saturation we more commonly associate with songs by the likes of Justin Timberlake, to name one star who quickly mourned Cohen's passing on social media.

"A spirit and soul beyond compare," Timberlake tweeted.

Cohen's voice was that of a trusted friend sharing confidences late at night, a source of depth rather than breadth.

Long before he was a favorite of celebrities, Cohen built a devoted cult of literary types with thoughtful, poetic songs like "Suzanne" and "Bird on the Wire" about religion and romance. Wider stardom eventually arrived, along with the vocal appreciation of fellow songwriters such as Bob Dylan, which helped sustain Cohen through depression and financial troubles.

But does Cohen's biggest song represent a crucial misapprehension of his work?

To listen to "Hallelujah" with an ear tuned for hits is to understand, at least a little, why Cohen's record company initially refused to put out "Various Positions."

"Look, Leonard," the label's president told the singer, according to legend, "we know you're great, but we don't know if you're any good."

And, indeed, it wasn't the low-rent "Hallelujah" from "Various Positions" that finally took off, but rather a seemingly endless series of cover versions, each weepier than the last.

In 2001, John Cale's rendition cropped up in the movie "Shrek." In 2002, "The West Wing" used Jeff Buckley's version to soundtrack a pivotal moment. Timberlake sang the song in 2010 during a telethon for survivors of that year's earthquake in Haiti.

And just a few months ago, Tori Kelly did "Hallelujah" at this year's Emmy Awards, where her performance was meant to coax tears as part of the "In Memoriam" tribute to recently departed television folk.

So although the song dominates his legacy, the difference between Cohen's approach and virtually everyone else's makes you wonder if the popularity of "Hallelujah" is the right way to think about the influence of an artist who never seemed to care much about scoring big pop hits.

But the audience came regardless. Cohen was working up to the end, releasing "You Want It Darker" just a few weeks ago. It's an album that debuted at No. 10 on the U.S. pop chart and looks at looming mortality with striking grace.

Yet the red herring is an established tradition in pop — just ask the heavy-metal band that breaks out with a ballad.

And there's plenty about Cohen, the poet turned novelist turned unlikely heartthrob, that suggests he might've been embarrassed by the increasingly maudlin treatment that "Hallelujah" received.

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In 2009, he went so far as to agree with a critic's plea for a moratorium on the song's (extremely lucrative) usage in movies and on TV.

That jibes with the earlier idea of Cohen as an arched-eyebrow hipster dispensing darkly humorous, often willfully obscure bons mots — a spiritual godfather to someone like Father John Misty, whose entire existence could be a performance of the front cover of Cohen's album "Death of a Ladies' Man."

For Cohen, the ramshackle sound of his "Hallelujah" was a means of keeping sentimentality at bay, as he'd done on his first few records with austere arrangements that had him accompanied by little more than acoustic guitar.

Maybe it was even a way to make fun of a song with such a grandiose title, to assure listeners he didn't really mean everything he was singing.

The more you listen to Cohen, though, the less convincing that caricature becomes. In reality, he was a guy who always meant everything he was singing but also knew where he fit into the pop world — and that wasn't alongside Barbra Streisand in any lung-busting competition.

So Cohen relied on other musical tools to put emotion across, which in 1984 meant a primitive Casio synthesizer that gave "Hallelujah" all the atmosphere of a storefront church.

And guess what? You compare his version now to the dozens of others that have sprung up since and Cohen's feels the most desperate and alive by far.

Sure, Buckley's 1994 cover, released a decade after "Various Positions" came out, is gorgeous — almost unbearably pretty, in truth, with its delicate electric guitar and swooping falsetto vocals. But it's also opaque in a way, as though Buckley's lived experience is walled off behind the song's beauty.

Perhaps that's just our accumulated memories of "The West Wing" and the zillion fresh-faced kids who've aped Buckley's rendition on singing shows like "American Idol."

Yet Cohen's "Hallelujah" has an awkward rawness that allows you to really hear the singer as he admits that all he ever learned from love "was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you."

He's not hiding from sentiment; he's getting out of its way, just as he was making no effort to conceal his age (or its effects) on the albums he released over the past few years, including "You Want It Darker."

"I'm angry and I'm tired all the time," he sang in that album's "Treaty," which would break your heart if his gravelly delivery didn't make you laugh.

That marriage of sly wit and naked emotion is one of several bonds that links Cohen to his great admirer Dylan, who also knows something about having his songs squeezed for all their worth.

We tend to think of these guys as somehow distrusting the impulse to speak from the heart — that their music amounts to a denunciation of schmaltz. But that's not quite right.

If Cohen wanted other people to stop milking "Hallelujah," maybe that was because he'd already milked it himself.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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