LONDON - Who could have predicted that the hottest musical item of a credit-crunch holiday season in Britain would be a meditation on King David by a 74-year-old Canadian with liquidity problems?
Leonard Cohen had to go back on the road this year after failing to recover $9.5 million that, according to the British Broadcasting Corp., a Los Angeles court ruled in 2006 was stolen by his ex-manager Kelley Lynch.
As the singer trundled from concert hall to arena, a song he first wrote in 1984, and whose final text he did not sign off on until years later, was enjoying an astonishing comeback: Cohen's "Hallelujah" last weekend raced to No. 1 on the U.K. charts for the Christmas rush week.
A gospel-chorus version of "Hallelujah" sung by a 20-year-old Londoner, Alexandra Burke, took the top slot. It earlier became the fastest-selling download single after her hugely amplified, pop-polished rendition won
The X Factor
, a talent contest on the ITV television channel.
Overnight, it yielded 105,000 paid-for downloads and in the next week sold 576,000 copies, outselling the rest of the top 20 combined, according to the U.K.'s Official Chart Company.
Burke's triumph didn't chime well in all quarters. Fans of the late California singer Jeff Buckley, who died in a swimming accident in 1997, aged 30, put up a Facebook page to promote his purist cover of the song, delivered solo with steel guitar and a poignancy magnified by the artist's tragic end. That version ended up in the No. 2 slot with 81,000 sold.
With Burke and Buckley's success, there seems little doubt that the man who will be laughing, or more likely, grumbling, all the way to the bank is the gravel-voiced Cohen.
Some may argue that "Hallelujah" is an inappropriate holiday song since it is represented in the dolorous lyric as a cry of sexual climax and romantic failure. Yet the ballad is, in every other sense, unimpeachably educational.
It relates the story of David and Bathsheba to a generation illiterate in biblical legend - "You saw her bathing on the roof / Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you" - and delivers a moral that adultery is wrong even when "I'll stand before the Lord of Song / with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah."
The opening verse dryly describes the melody for anyone to play - "The fourth, the fifth / The minor fall, the major lift." Judging by the rush of viewers on YouTube, more than 5.6 million for Cohen's original, 7.6 million for its rendering in the movie
, there can be little doubt that countless young folk will be trying out its simple chords on their new guitars these holidays.
Compared with the standard slush of U.K. Christmas hits - from Al Martino's "Here in My Heart" (1952) to BandAid's fund-raising "Do They Know It's Christmas" (1984, 1989 and 2004) - Cohen's "Hallelujah" delivers uplift and consolation, enlightenment and the recognition of shared experience.
But when the last gifts are unwrapped, the epitaph that "Hallelujah" leaves will be for the music industry itself, a sector built around shifting its heaviest sales volume in the six weeks before Christmas, and tailoring releases to the lowest intelligence.
Cohen takes a higher literacy level for granted, and when, in his opening verse, he chants, "But you don't really care for music, do ya?," recording executives may feel called upon to do better.