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April 13, 2009

Cohen's "Hallelujah" & Mozart's "Lacrimosa": Part I.

By: Bernard Chazelle

I've seen ugliness on this blog but nothing quite like the vicious display of self-loathing that accompanied Jon's loving tribute to the magnificent Rachel Corrie. If not for all the sick hours they indulge obsessing about ATR, some commenters would probably be out mugging old ladies, so for that alone society can be grateful for Jon's place.

All right, enough pixels wasted already. Back to music. The parallels are obvious and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" drew its inspiration from Mozart's "Lacrimosa." More on the latter in part II.

Cohen is a poet, who merely likes to decorate his meticulously crafted words with music. The only English-speaking pop lyricist in his league, Bob Dylan, is the opposite: a folksong writer with a gift for decorating bluesy lines with poetic phrases and rhymes. Dylan is the master of the colorful, kaleidoscopic snapshot. He is the better songwriter but Cohen is the better poet. Without the music (and I say this as one of his hugest fans), Dylan is nothing. He's heir to Woody Guthrie's throne, not Dylan Thomas's (yes, the irony). Word and meaning are two balls Dylan could never quite juggle together. Dylan is the anti-Yeats, the artist without a purpose, the lazy genius who surrounds himself with second-rate musicians, the phrasing master who blurs the line between spontaneity and mediocrity. Dylan and Cohen have one thing in common, though: changing the world was never their gig.

Dylan sings the blues. Cohen sings about love. Dylan, the greatest rock 'n' roll artist, seems utterly oblivious to the mediocrity of much of his output. Cohen knows he's not Seamus Heaney. He's only an exquisitely fine poet who (as rumor has it, under Dylan's prodding) chose to make music his medium.

"Hallelujah" is a beautifully written song about sex, love, and grace, a mix with a proud literary pedigree. There are 80 verses to choose from, so every cover is bound to sound different. The music is catchy but clumsy. Like the Lacrimosa, it is flawed, flaws that Jeff Buckley's thoroughly degospelled cult cover, for all its merits, manages to amplify. Cohen's phrasing is tortured but his words shine:

I've seen your flag on a marble arch,

but, listen, love -- love is not some kind of victory march.

No, it's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah...

It's not a complaint that you hear tonight,

it's not the laughter of someone who claimed to have seen the light.

No, it's a cold and it's a very lonely Hallelujah ...

Yeah and even though it all went wrong

I'll stand right here before the lord of song

with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at April 13, 2009 12:22 AM

Mark Nuckols is certainly an upstanding and model citizen, isn't he?

Well, enough about that.

What the heck does "degospelled" mean?

Posted by: Svensker at April 13, 2009 10:09 AM

I've always been very partial to:

Famous Blue Raincoat and Bird on a Wire.

I don't quite get the comparison between Dylan and Cohen. Is it necessary to compare him to acknowledge his talent and sensitivity? As fine as Cohen is, he's had much less influence with the masses because Dylan speaks to them with less pretense.

Posted by: Angryman@24:10 at April 13, 2009 10:44 AM

If you want a comparison, rather than a contrast, I'd say both Dylan and Cohen write lyrics that reflect and validate what one actually feels about a given situation, instead of what one SUPPOSED to feel.

Posted by: Paul Avery at April 13, 2009 11:42 AM

Perhaps it's because of the suit and tie thing.

But, seriously, their paths do cross. Oh Mercy is laced with Cohen theme and nuance. Everything Is Broken could quite convincingly be attributed to Cohen as composer.

Posted by: Paul Avery at April 13, 2009 12:12 PM

Hallelujah has been ruined through overexposure in film scores (Watchmen being the latest and most egregious example).

Dylan's approach to lyrics can be scattershot, but some of his (mostly early) work has the focused, knife-twisting quality of Cohen, like this one which has resonance in these piratical times.

Posted by: mtraven at April 13, 2009 12:46 PM

Svensker: "de-Gospel'ed" I think.

Posted by: Guest at April 13, 2009 12:47 PM

degospelled, or keep your Nuckols of my meaning...

I think degospelled is far too interesting-sounding a word to just mean "de-gospel'ed", even if that's B. Chazelle's intended meaning. Because that just begins and ends the etymological mystery right there, doesn't it?

I propose it should be allowed to float up into the ether and seize its own meaning, like "Mark Nuchols was utterly degospelled when he realized that..."

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at April 13, 2009 04:47 PM

Cohen is a poet, who merely likes to decorate his meticulously crafted words with music.

People often say this about him, and I understand why, but I can't agree. Just today I was listening to New Skin for the Old Ceremony and noticing the brilliant arrangements on songs like "There Is a War" and "Is This What You Wanted". The placement of the hand percussion, the at times halting, at times forceful backing vocalists, other elements that I can't think of right now because I'm tired and have a headache...these are not just decorations, but integral to the impact of the words. A poet who decorates his words with music does not progress from acoustic folk to synthesized washes of sound, nor does he go to Phil Spector to produce an album.

I agree that Leonard Cohen's lyrics can very easily stand on their own as poetry, but I can't think of the music as an afterthought.

And then there are those of his poems that he did not make into songs, some of which are rhythmically structured very differently than his song lyrics. I'm thinking in particular of "God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot", which I'd bet Cohen never even thought of as being a potential song until Buffy Sainte-Marie came along and figured out how to make it musical (and how to make it sound like she wrote it for herself).

As for Mozart, I've always felt kind of guilty for liking the Lacrimosa best out of the entire Requiem, like I was favoring the ghostwriter over Mozart himself. Thanks for somewhat validating me!

Posted by: ethan at April 13, 2009 04:58 PM