The strange transition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” from a baritone, synth-based ballad to an American Idol staple that singers use to showcase soaring, transcendent vocals is one of the more curious things to happen in pop music over the past couple of decades. (Jeff Buckley, who was among the first to elevate Cohen’s juxtaposition of both religious and squalid imagery, certainly played an important role in that transition.) However it happened, “Hallelujah” now belongs to those who tend to focus more on the “love is not a victory march” than the “all I ever really learned from love is how to shoot at someone who outdrew ya.”
That maybe makes things a little awkward sometimes, but in the case of Arlington a cappella group (and Sing Off season three champions) Pentatonix, the solution was just to skip that verse completely. A version of “Hallelujah” appears on the forthcoming A Pentatonix Christmas, which they teased with a music video released over the weekend. It resonated with an audience quickly: The video went viral, and sits at just under seven million views as of Monday afternoon.
This version of the song is lovely, of course—the group’s voices are near-perfect, and the harmonies are gorgeous, capturing the beauty of a melody that Bob Dylan recently gushed about to the New Yorker. “It’s a beautifully constructed melody that steps up, evolves, and slips back, all in quick time,” Dylan told New Yorker editor David Remnick about the song. Although Cohen’s lyrics are often interpreted as perhaps more worshipful than the author intended them, the power of that melody explains why a group like Pentatonix is able to find a way to deliver an affecting rendition of the song.
Pentatonix are well-equipped to showcase why the song continues to live through fresh reinterpretations: it’s a beautiful melody with a chorus that speaks to a yearning higher need that, whether interpreted as religious or secular, resonates with audiences around the world. It’s no wonder that seven million people watched Pentatonix sing it this weekend.
Cohen himself, of course, seems to live pretty well off of “Hallelujah” and the proceeds from his final tours in 2012, if that New Yorker profile is any indication. There’s more to the artist than just that song, of course—he released his fourteenth album, You Want It Darker, on Friday, and though he’s indicated that at 82 there’s unlikely to be more touring in his future, if he does any one-off performances behind You Want It Darker, those are likely to include bassist and Austinite Roscoe Beck, whose presence in Cohen’s band has made Austin an unlikely tour stop for an artist who can sell out performances around the world.