Thanks to Andrew Sullivan, I've spent much of today listening to and pondering Leonard Cohen's song, Hallelujah.
I have to admit, until Sullivan starting posting the links, I only knew it as "that sad song from Shrek." In my defense, I will say that when I heard it in the movie, I thought, "Gee, this seems waaaay too good to have been written for a movie about a Scottish ogre."
After listening to about seven different versions (in addition to the ones listed above, I also listened to version by everyone from Bon Jovi to Sheryl Crow) I have concluded that Sullivan's obsession is justified.
Hallelujah combines both a timeless quality and a modern sensibility, wrapped around the same core of primal yearning that makes the best Disney and Pixar cartoons so irresistable.
Compare the song to what I think is the greatest gospel song ever written, "Amazing Grace," and Hallelujah holds so much more richness and complexity.
Compare it as well to the greatest pop songs (the simplicity of "Let It Be" seems to come closest), and again Hallelujah stands apart.
Its greatness is such that it has been transformed time and time again, covered over 100 times, used in Scrubs and the OC (three times!), and it still has the power to evoke strong feelings even from cynical bastards like me. This essay does a great job of detailing the evolution of the song, from Cohen's original, to the John Cale version that established the slow, piano-driven approach that now dominates, to Jeff Buckley's famous version (which lasts an astounding 6:57).
The best explanation I can find comes from aforementioned ClapClap.org essay, channeling Umberto Eco on the magic of Casablanca:
When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion. Just as the height of pain may encounter sensual pleasure, and the height of perversion border on mystical energy, so too the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime.
It's as good an explanation as any. Make sure to check out Allison's Crowe's cover before you go.
Now 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 and 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 you let me know
What's real and 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
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
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah
(with belated apologies to Andrew McClelland for always mocking his love of Leonard Cohen when we were undergrads)