Through his podcast, the journalist and Trinity graduate narrates stirring stories into existence.
By Vikram Nijhawan, Senior Arts and Culture Editor
In an early episode of his podcast Revisionist History called “Hallelujah”, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of how Leonard Cohen wrote the now-beloved titular song. The best-selling nonfiction author and Trinity College alumnus was hardly the first to recount the events behind “Hallelujah’s” unexpected success, but the way he presents them – his pedantic fascination with the beats of Cohen’s creative process, and how that relates to Gladwell’s obsession with musical underdogs – makes the foundational story even more special. This is partly because the podcast’s underlying premise, to examine matters which have been “overlooked or misunderstood”, resonates with the song’s circuitous route to popularity.
Gladwell has carved out a niche for himself as an audio storyteller in recent years. His collective Pushkin Industries houses a variety of educational podcast programs dedicated to long-form nonfiction stories. Last year, he released an audiobook called The Bomber Mafia, which presented a history of strategic bombing tactics used during WWII, by compiling archival recordings with his interview clips and overarching narration. Soon after, he embarked on a similar project: an exclusively audio biography about pop musician Paul Simon called Miracle and Wonder, which followed a similar interview-based format, along with interstitials from Simon’s popular song recordings and concert performances over the years.
Of course, Gladwell’s most prolific endeavour into the realm of audio storytelling predates both of those works. His podcast Revisionist History, which has been running since 2016, perfects the approach to telling a feature-length story through an acoustic medium, implementing all the affordances at his disposal. The seventh episode of the show’s debut season – titled after the song Gladwell discusses, “Hallelujah” – is the best illustration of how he uses the audio form to bring narrative content to life, as he examines the story of another famed creative voice.
Throughout the episode, Gladwell highlights the importance of the “experimental geniuses” in all artistic fields. The tinkerers who digress, explore, rewrite countless drafts, and take their entire lives chasing after an abstract notion of greatness, trying to express this in the best possible form. He adapts this idea from “Late Bloomers”, an article he wrote for The New Yorker back in 2008, but this time using Cohen as the central case study. Gladwell’s writing style – staccato, matter-of-fact sentences, and his use of punchy descriptors for his subjects – translates effectively to an auditory medium. His diction is at once elevated yet unpretentious, and combined with his smooth voice as a narrator, mesmerizing for any listener.
In the episode, Gladwell asserts that the ultimate success of Cohen’s song, a moving hymn for a secular age, was far from divinely preordained. Like a pointillist painter, Gladwell illustrates his thesis through a precise, colourful history of “Hallelujah’s” conception, recounting Cohen’s turbulent journey writing the song over the course of five years. He describes how the up-and-coming Montreal musician spent nights banging his head against the pristine bathroom floor tiles of a Parisian hotel, agonizing over the lyrics, revising and shuffling them around. After the song was rejected by Walter Yetnikov at CBS Records, Cohen released “Hallelujah” on his 1984 Passport Records album Various Positions. As Gladwell summates, the song in its original “turgid” form, featuring Cohen’s raspy vocals and a saccharine background band, failed to convince listeners of its greatness. Cohen rewrote “Hallelujah” obsessively, composing almost fifteen pages of different verses by the time he shared the official version. It took just as many years for the heart-swelling single to receive its current widespread praise, and as Gladwell emphasizes, this was by complete happenstance.
The musician John Cale performed a cover of the song, which was released on the Leonard Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan in 1991. Few took notice of the collection, save for two individuals. The first was guitarist Jeff Buckley, whose subsequent cover of “Hallelujah”, inspired after listening to the tune on the album, would cement the song as an anthem of sincerity for the generation of artists who followed him. The second was Malcolm Gladwell. Not only a compatriot of Cohen, but in a certain way, his contemporary counterpart: a Canadian writer defined by his curiosity, an observer of little-known details that other great minds would overlook, in perpetual search for his creative sound. A work of Gladwellian nonfiction can be about a topic as mundane as staple manufacturing, and still succeed in making listeners drag their chairs to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s proverbial “edge of the precipice”, to hang on to every word in the same way Jeff Buckley must have felt upon first hearing Cale’s haunting piano rendition of “Hallelujah”.
Gladwell isn’t a great nonfiction writer because of his original ideas. Rather, like Leonard Cohen, he displays his creative excellence by treading over the minute and the granular. His talent lies in stitching together the perspectives and thoughts of other great minds, playing with disparate puzzle pieces, slotting imperfect edges together to produce insightful analyses. Like Cohen’s process of composing the lyrics for “Hallelujah”, Gladwell often digresses and meanders in his writings. He rejects the straightforward narrative path, choosing to embrace nonlinearity, ambiguity, and taking his audience on a dizzying journey to reveal some greater truth. The “Hallelujah” episode of Revisionist History concludes with Gladwell praising creators who follow Cohen’s ethos, “[T]he obsessives, and the perpetually dissatisfied, and the artists who go back over and over again, repainting what others see as finished”. Nothing could better characterize Gladwell’s own mantra as a nonfiction writer.
When Leonard Cohen first wrote “Hallelujah”, much of the music world overlooked or misunderstood his contribution. The song deserved a second chance, something Malcolm Gladwell knew better than most. Only a songwriter as obsessive as Leonard Cohen could have produced a work of greatness like “Hallelujah”. But without equally obsessive writers like Gladwell, those who could appreciate Cohen’s unique creative struggle, and his gradual goal of reaching towards the sublime, the world may never have appreciated the story behind the song’s greatness. As creatives within the audio medium – music and journalism, respectively – Cohen and Gladwell both stand alone as peerless outliers.
Vikram Nijhawan is an English graduate from Trinity College. He has served as Senior Editor for the Arts and Culture section for the 2021-22 academic year.