Musings on a theme: Leonard Cohen

Photo: Rolf Haid
Photo: Rolf Haid
Photo: Rolf Haid

The last few months have hit pretty hard. With the uproar surrounding the U.S. election, perspective may have been skewed lately, but four years is by no means an eternity. A contemplative Remembrance afternoon left me feeling markedly low, though, for news of proper permanence had broken: the death of Leonard Cohen. The man whose compilations would fascinate me from boyhood; whose albums, now in complete attendance on my shelves would take pride of place in my CD collection; he who had grown to be the hero of my musical existence is gone.

Over the course of 49 years and 14 studio albums, each of a broadly peerless standard, there is a vast quantity of material to cover with an ever-expanding soundscape, an enormous anthology of lyrics, and a plethora of themes. So here are some of what I think are his finest songs. And while some are more well-known than others, this compilation is all too brief an effort to encompass the experiences and thoughts of such “a sage, a man of vision”.

‘One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong’, the last track on Songs of Leonard Cohen, his debut album of 1967, is one of his most sparse songs and over the years, many have struggled to break down its enigmatic lines. Is he brooding on his failed romantic advances towards Nico of Velvet Underground and Warhol fame? Is he talking about the suicide of his guitar teacher of three lessons, a young Spanish immigrant in Montreal? Or the forgotten Rolling Stone, Brian Jones? Cohen has always had a tendency for the abstract, far more than the more bardic Bob Dylan, but, under the almost drunken wailing in the closing seconds, there is without doubt a feeling of regret in the song.

Rushing forward nearly half a century to his parting gift You Want It Darker (2016) and still there is a wistfulness in the moving ‘Treaty’ and its instrumental reprise in the final track, now the conclusion of the entire Cohen oeuvre, a grieving, epistolary plea to a former lover with typically biblical and poetic allusion strewn through. The string quartet and piano is a departure from the accustomed, more synthetic sound of 21st century Cohen.

Martial imagery is inherent in much of his work, not least ‘The Partisan’ from 1969’s Songs From A Room. It was not written by Cohen but, instead, originated as a song of the French Resistance in WWII (and, later, of Walesa’s Solidarity in Soviet Poland) that he had heard in French-speaking Montreal and played to his friends as a teenager. Towards the beginning of his recording career Cohen was particularly political, spending time in Cuba and war-torn Israel in the 1960s and ’70s, as is referenced in the autobiographical ‘Night Comes On’ from Various Positions (1984), the first of his albums to exhibit this more ersatz timbre laid upon his habitually intricate and delicate guitar. One of the song’s verses mentions his experience in the Sinai War, where he wrote his song ‘Field Commander Cohen’, and the early loss of his father, who himself died from chronic war injuries when Cohen was just nine.

Photo: Jan Persson
Photo: Jan Persson

His politicising was, perhaps, most undisguised during the Fall of Sovietism and in the two albums bookending it, I’m Your Man (1988) and The Future (1992), from which the triumphant ‘Democracy’ is taken. This track turns ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’ on their heads, adopting the classical allusion of the ship of state, paradoxically the USA’s, not the USSR’s, and depicting the calm, free waters into which it is being steered.

Faith is a definitive concern of Cohen, a surname that itself indicates patrilineal descent from rabbis. Born and raised a Jew in a Semitic area of Montreal, Westmount, from which the synagogue choir on the title track of You Want It Darker also hails, Cohen learnt Hebrew and practised Judaism. During the late 1990s in a bout of deep depression, an illness he suffered with throughout his life, he isolated himself on Mount Baldy and became a Buddhist monk under Kyozan Joshu Sasaki. The prayerful ‘Show Me The Place’ from 2011’s Old Ideas, expresses in rumbling, non-denominational petitions this willingness to serve a higher power, much like his poetry anthology, Book of Longing (2006).

It is this same introspective isolation that appears earlier in his writings, such as the hermitic and resentful hunchback’s account in ‘Avalanche’, the opening track from the darkest of his albums, Songs of Love and Hate (1971). The slippery guitar pattern and the pained howl is a far cry from the comfortable resignation of his supposed meta-poetic masterpiece, I’m Your Man’s ‘Tower of Song’, a self-deprecating assessment of his lonely place within the musical strata. Whatever this metaphor means, it is comforting to know that as Cohen bids farewell he tells us: “you’ll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone/ I’ll be speaking to you sweetly/ from a window in the Tower of Song”. No doubt we shall.


    • Hi! He’s alway given quite a hard time for being sullen and depressive i.e. “music to slit your wrists to” but there’s a lot of comedy, as you say, in his work as well as triumph and satisfaction. He wittily manages to turn death and heartbreak into self-deprecation!

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