The life force smoldered to the finish. Then it departed from Leonard Cohen’s 82-year-old physique on November 7 and left in its ghostly wake a number of entryways into a towering profession that spanned six decades. If you are new to Cohen’s work, decide on any of the doors by which other individuals have gained access to the Canadian native’s art: his first book of poems Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) his novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Gorgeous Losers (1966) Judy Collin’s 1966 hit version of “Suzanne” Cohen’s debut LP Songs of Leonard Cohen Jennifer Warnes’ exquisite 1987 homage Well-known Blue Raincoat the then 53-year-old Cohen’s 1988 well-liked breakthrough I’m Your Man Jeff Buckley’s epic and historic 1994 version of “Hallelujah” the 2005 film, I’m Your Man, which documented Hal Wilner’s tribute concerts with Nick Cave, Teddy Thompson, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, U2 with Cohen, and other people or the concert recordings from Cohen’s practically nonstop touring from 2008 through 2013. Or, as many will do now, meet Leonard Cohen as he ruminates on his anticipated, probably even welcomed, death in the nine breathtaking songs on his final album, You Want It Darker, released on October 21. Deepen your familiarity by reading Sylvie Simmons’ definitive biography, I’m Your Man, and David Remnick’s probing and wrenching profile in the Oct. 17 issue of The New Yorker.
Wherever you enter, it’s like stepping into 1 of numerous interconnected caves, each illuminated by words and music—even the poetry and prose flicker to musical cadences and implied melodies—that challenge, push back, but by no means fully banish the darkness at the heart of Cohen’s muse. The shadows on the walls alter from chamber to chamber: a poet’s garret at McGill University in Montreal or in London or on the Greek island of Hydra a area in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City in the late sixties a cell in a Zen monastery on Mt. Baldy in Southern California. The apparitions are the lovers Cohen addresses in his songs, God in numerous guises, terrorists, nuns, the phantoms that swirl inside Cohen’s complicated but strangely stalwart persona, seeded at birth in Westmount, Quebec, and deepened more than the decades. Cohen typically identifies these shadows as “you,” and as a listener you may possibly recognize or find out some (most usually dark) aspect of your self. Every single Cohen composition is in some way about what it indicates to be human, to be flawed, fragile, resilient, politically outraged, living, loving, worshipping, and dying.
Nobel Prizes notwithstanding, any sampling from Cohen’s catalog—for instance, “Suzanne,” “Bird on the Wire,” “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” “Hallelujah,” “Everybody Knows,” “Tower of Song,” “Ain’t No Remedy for Adore,” “First We Take Manhattan,” “The Future,” “Democracy,” “In My Secret Life, “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” and “Going Home”—stands with the very best literary songwriting in the well-known music of any era. And coming in a year that has named residence Merle Haggard, David Bowie, Prince, Guy Clark, Ralph Stanley, George Martin, Bernie Worrell, Paul Kantner, Maurice White, Glen Frey, Scotty Moore, Bobby Vee, Leon Russell, and Mose Allison, amongst other folks, the loss of Cohen feels specially heavy, a sucker punch into the gut of philosophy, wisdom, compassion, and the quest for understanding.
As his pal Leon Wieseltier wrote in a New York Times memorial, “Leonard had an unusual inflection for darkness: He found in it an occasion for uplift. His operate is animated by a laudatory impulse, an unexpected and profoundly moving hunger to praise the globe in complete view of it. His attitude of acceptance was not founded on anything as inexpensive as happiness. … He lived in a weather of wisdom, which he developed by seeking it rather than by discovering it. … Leonard sang constantly as a sinner. He refused to describe sin as a failure or a disqualification. Sin was a situation of creatureliness, and his feeling for our creatureliness was boundless.”
Writing and singing of the body and the mind, normally the naked physique and the troubled thoughts, Cohen furnished his transitions as an artistic creature—from frustrated poet to depressive singer-songwriter to reluctant pop star to suave, sly, wry, and commanding concertizer—with music relevant to its time: the early folk-pop formulas of acoustic guitar and bass, strings, and harmony vocals, ideal heard on Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs from a Space the sleek synth-pop of the 80s and the new millennium, introduced on Different Positions, perfected on I’m Your Man and The Future, and stripped to elegant minimalism on Ten New Songs and the sophisticated massive-band orchestrations that made the current live albums, Live in London, Songs from the Road, Reside in Dublin, and Can not Overlook: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, indispensible additions to the canon. Cohen favored steady beats or pulses, but as he became a much better, much more assured, and sexier singer, he poured his ever-deepening, increasingly gruff and affecting voice over the rhythms like honey, playing with the pace and messing with the emotional gloss.
Cohen’s farewell masterpiece, You Want It Darker, his 14th studio album and his 11th release in the 21st century, is a excellent roundup and sendoff, at once stark in its standard instrumentation and programming and lush in its theatrical arrangements of voices, keyboards, and strings. In the tapestry of Cohen’s Jewish faith, Buddhist psychology, and agnostic skepticism, the light flashes off such lines as “Hineni, hineni / I’m ready, my lord,” “I heard the snake was baffled by his skin / He shed his scales to find the snake within,” “I’m old and I’ve had to settle / On a diverse point of view,” “I’m leaving the table / I’m out of the game,” “I guess I’m just / Somebody who / Has given up on the me and you,” and “As he died to make men holy / Let us die to make issues low-cost.” It’s not only death that Cohen was staring into as he recorded You Want It Darker, but nirvana as effectively, the extinguishing of craving and suffering. He sings “We kill the flame” on the title track and “The wretched beast is tame / I don’t require a lover / So blow out the flame” on “Leaving the Table”—and adds “I’m out of the game.”
Almost 30 years ago, Cohen released I’m Your Man, as pivotal an album as Songs of Leonard Cohen and You Want It Darker. On its final track, “Tower of Song,” against a deceptively straightforward-sounding arrangement of pulsating keyboards, steel guitar, drums, percussion, and angelic women’s backing vocals (Jennifer Warnes and Jude Johnstone adding doo-wop choruses of “day doo dum dum”), he whisper-sings two of his funniest couplets: “Well, my close friends are gone and my hair is grey / I ache in the locations exactly where I used to play” and “I was born like this, I had no option / I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” They sandwich one particular of his most evocative verses:
I stated to Hank Williams: How lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered however
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song
Was Cohen putting Williams at the apex of a hierarchy of poets, composers, and singers, which might have included Lorca, Ginsberg, Brecht and Weill, Ray Charles, and Nina Simone? Or was he imagining a hereafter for misfit musicians, as implied by the song’s closing stanza (“But you’ll be hearing from me infant, long following I’m gone / I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song”)? In any case, Cohen’s window has in no way been and never will be a hundred stories below that of any other songwriter, in this lifetime or the subsequent.
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