On the lyrics of Leonard Cohen

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A few months back I submitted an essay to a magazine curated by my friends Aoife and Samantha of the Bunny Collective. The essay explored a spell of sadness that I had experienced last winter, and in particular, the fluid relationship between our emotions and light. Whilst I wrote and re-wrote the essay in question for months, the ending was always intact. There was no doubt in my mind that there was only one way that I could conclude this piece of writing and that was with the extraordinary words of Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

When I woke up yesterday morning, I blearily thumbed through my newsfeed and read these words again. I would continue to read them throughout the day as fans marked his death by posting them over and over. These lyrics from ‘Anthem’ are some of his most loved anyway, but their ubiquity is no reason not to stop and appreciate their power. I can still remember the first time I really listened to this song, whilst sitting at my desk in work and thinking to myself that maybe Cohen was right after all, that our failures and mistakes are in fact what make us. It may not sound like much, but for the first time in a really long time, I was comforted.

The juxtaposition between light and dark is the bread and butter of Cohen’s work, and in that case, it is fitting that his final album is titled, You Want It Darker with Cohen huskily singing in the eponymous title track: ‘We kill the flame’. Later, he sings: ‘A million candles burning for the help that never came’ ̶ surely a fitting tribute for this current state of despair. Furthermore, the night is often a time of carnal instinct for Cohen. As the title character in ‘Lady Midnight’ says: ‘Just win me or lose me/It is this that the darkness is for’. Meanwhile, in his most famous song, ‘Hallelujah’, he speaks of a female figure cast in the silvery mystery of the moon’s glow: ‘Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you’. Or in that lonesome rhyming tune, ‘Who by Fire’, Cohen sets up his world of contrasts: ‘Who in the sunshine, Who in the night time’.

However, the role of light and dark in Cohen’s lyrics is not to be mistaken as purely literal. Rather, I think a lot of Cohen’s appeal lies in his ability to infiltrate the grotty, brutality of humanity with the crisp, clearness of light. It is as though his songs, or at least the ideas of them, spin on a shadowy axis, only to be then cast in the bright glare of the sun. To put it another way, there is always a moment of redemption: all is not lost, there can be beauty in pain and lessons learned in suffering, we can still hate and then forgive, and we are more human, more full of light and all the better for it.

In ‘Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’, Cohen turns painful heartbreak into sad acceptance, clinging on to the memory of his lover’s hair splayed across the pillow. Or in ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, he forgives a man with whom ‘his woman’ Jane has fallen for ‘taking the sadness from her eyes’. Famously, Cohen sang ‘Love is not a victory march’ and this is perhaps, the defining characteristic of his world view. There is much to say about the heavy religious imagery in his music, but the entanglement of love and suffering, love and religious-like devotion is at the bloody, beating heart of this. In the poignant ‘So Long Marianne’, he sings:

We met when we were almost young
deep in the green lilac park
You held on to me like I was a crucifix,
as we went kneeling through the dark.

Or, in an incidence of apocalyptic reflection in ‘Tower of Song’, he croons:

I see you standing on the other side
I don’t know how the river got so wide
I loved you baby, way back when
And all the bridges are burning that we might have crossed
But I feel so close to everything that we lost
We’ll never, we’ll never have to lose it again

But for all of this, there is also a savagery to his lyrics that is rarely matched by his peers. In ‘You Know Who I Am’, Cohen utters some of his most violent, animalistic words:

Sometimes I need you naked,
sometimes I need you wild,
I need you to carry my children in
and I need you to kill a child.

However, the baseness of his lyrics goes hand in hand with the raw, unflinching masculinity of his imagery. If light and darkness, and the suffering of love, are two key strands in his work, a final area of poetic interest is warfare. In particular, his second album, Songs from a Room, presents a lyrical landscape burned out by war. In ‘The Old Revolution’, he provides what could be an updated version of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’: ‘And I thought that we were winning/I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing/ As they carry the bodies away/ Into this furnace I ask you now to venture.’ Or in ‘The Partisan’, here is a man who has lost his wife and children, and his fellow men, but continues his lonesome trudge through a desolate land. On the flipside, the notion of ‘surrender’ comes up, most notably in a personal favourite, ‘The Stranger Song’: ‘It’s hard to hold the hand of anyone/Who is reaching for the sky just to surrender’. These are songs for broken soldiers, for all of us down here in the trenches and questioning just what it is about.

Of course, the first Leonard Cohen song I ever heard was ‘Suzanne’. A colleague of my mother’s lent her a tape of his, as my sister shares the same name. Even now, it’s still one of his most special, and I think for these lines alone: ‘And you know that she’s half crazy/But that’s why you want to be there/And she feeds you tea and oranges/ That come all the way from China’. Suzanne is both motherly and magical at once as ‘the sun pours down like honey’ and she leads you to the river.

Yesterday, amongst it all, I came across a quote on Instagram taken from a 1993 interview with Cohen: ‘I don’t consider myself a pessimist at all. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin’. The quote stuck with me all day and I even shared it with some people close to me. I was struck by the honesty of it. Here was a man willing to accept the terrible bleakness of this mortal coil, but in doing so I think, allowing the light to get in.