In Washington, D.C. the weather was perfect. After a brutally humid, life-sapping summer the autumn was perfection—70’s and 60’s, blue skies and that gorgeous honeyed light. Some meteorologists claimed that our fall colors might be dulled by the hot summer, but to my eyes the trees seemed more colorful, more beautiful than ever. Every day was California-beautiful, barely a spot of rain. On Wednesday, November 9th—the day after the 2016 US Presidential Election—the skies darkened and the rain descended, and the world flipped out. What should have been a cake walk for Hillary Clinton, or so we were told, turned into one of the most shocking political upsets of the past fifty years. My social media feed suddenly transformed itself into a massive therapy session, a call to arms, a pointing of the fingers, shock and awe writ large. For liberals and moderates the culmination of the interminable 2016 election was something akin to The Apocalypse. It suddenly felt to many that our country had abandoned all tenants of liberalism and embraced the dark side—something many viewed as fascist, racist and horrific. Protests raged as racist threats and actions popped up around the country. The KKK celebrated in North Carolina.
Angst and existential dread, thy name is November, 2016.
The day before the election, Leonard Cohen died at age 82. Upon learning of Cohen’s passing a few days later, I gave his Greatest Hits CD another spin. As I reclined on my living room sofa listening to “So Long Marianne,” “Suzanne” et al, I realized there was something powerfully symbolic at work here. Leonard Cohen was, in my view, first and foremost a poet of ambiguity and internal reflection. Perhaps his songs connected at times to the outer world, with some particular political backdrop, but if so the assembly was usually cloaked in his simple, almost primeval songs. The death of such an internal, seemingly-private artist seemed to be simultaneously symbolic of the death of such reasoned 20th century thinking; Cohen’s passing reflected the passing of a different way of processing tragedy and highlighted the predominance of media and the social-media-stoked political vitriol in 2016 America. So much for reasoned reflection—now we must, the sages of Facebook and Twitter and CNN counsel, scream and claw and whirl about in a political froth and frenzy. We must howl and protest. Cohen’s songs suggested a different, more metaphysical disposition, a different temperament if not a different solution altogether.
Music provides solace, and at its best, expresses emotions of which the listener might not even be entirely cognizant. Such is the case with Cohen’s songs for me and many others, I’m sure (music’s ability to cull the emotions made it “the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart,” according to one Martin Luther). The consolation of Leonard Cohen is that his songs acknowledge upfront all the darkness the listener can muster—no wonder Kurt Cobain found succor in this “Leonard Cohen afterworld.” Bleakness is the starting point, the texture and gristle of Cohen’s music. But Cohen doesn’t stop there. He asks, okay, so what? Where do we go from here?
For me, Cohen’s Greatest Hits CD was also a frequent go-to as a means to stir that pot of lucid reflection. The listener wonders—so what is going on in this scenario? In 2016, Cohen’s songs from the late 60’s and early 70’s seem to emanate from another era altogether. They are dispassionate about passion, an antidote to frenetic post-Twitter frenzies. They are little philosophical koans (yet it is worth remembering that most were penned at the turbulent height of the Vietnam War among other things). Even the cover of the classic album is saturated in mystery—through a peep hole we see Cohen, wearing black, (looking in this renowned image a bit like the second cousin of Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman to my eyes) who seems to return our gaze, slightly off to the right. We are the voyeur into his private world—allowed a glimpse, but only that—the album seems to suggest. No Dylanesque calls to action or songs of remonstration here—Cohen’s world was sequestered and elliptical, about spiritual aching, interior rumination.
In his late work, Cohen retreated even more inwardly, if that’s possible. It’s amazing to me that over the past four years—in his late 70’s and early 80’s—Cohen produced three albums. But what else would we expect, lounging on the beach, sipping margaritas, playing shuffleboard?
In Old Ideas (2012) Cohen sung of “Darkness”: “I’ve got no future, I know my days are few.” Utilizing his trademark unpretentious blues progression and weighty repetition and featuring organ and tinkling piano and female backing vocals, Cohen’s song is purely an admission of decline—and survival amidst it. The lyrics are direct: “I caught the darkness and I’ve got it worse than you (Cohen usually sidesteps the more baroque lyrical filigrees of, say, Dylan). On the same album “Show Me the Place” is a bit more indirect about its reference point: “show me the place where you want your slave to go.” Cohen’s voice in his late work deepened considerably and became fissured and craggy so that the listener can almost hear his vocal chords—down to the cellular level. The extreme baritone of his late work is so all-encompassing it almost seems like a geological force rather than a human product—a volcanic emission from some hidden mountain cavern. The recordings are so intimate as to give the impression that the listener is inside his voice.
Popular Problems continues the murky subterranean blues game. A few songs from this album seem a bit more turgid to my ears and his guttural voice approaches Tom Waits territory on numbers like “Did I Ever Love You?” One thing is patently clear: in Cohen’s late work he abandoned completely acoustic guitars for background piano, violin, electronic pulses and, of course, the ever-present background vocals which give his work a full choir-like resonance.
In “Nevermind” Cohen took this full-sound in a different and interesting direction. Originally published as a poem, here the background vocals take on a Middle-Eastern flavor. The standout song from this album, however—and one of the best songs of his career in my opinion—is “Almost Like the Blues,” a song in which Cohen bitterly points out the ignored everyday tragedies and his inability to digest them: “I saw some people starving/There was murder, there was rape/Their villages were burning/They were trying to escape/I couldn’t meet their glances/I was staring at my shoes/It was acid, it was tragic/It was almost like the blues.” And then at the song’s conclusion, elliptically: “I’ve had the invitation/That a sinner can’t refuse/And it’s almost like salvation/It’s almost like the blues.”
My favorite among Cohen’s late albums is actually the last one, You Want it Darker—the most cogent and cohesive of the three. On the cover of this final work Cohen leans from out of a light infused window into the darkness—the symbolism of this was, I’m sure, not lost on him. On this album he is self-conscious about his mortality and his regrets and the songs are, to a T, bittersweet and drenched in a kind of burnished afterglow. On You Want it Darker, Cohen’s take on a more explicitly spiritual theme and seemingly autobiographical remembrance, the listener can easily tell this is Cohen’s swan song. “I’m leaving the table/I’m out of the game,” he sings in the top-notch “Leaving the Table” (pretty guitar work here). The songs on this album are slower, less electronic than Popular Problems, heavy on organ and almost Gregorian chant background vocals. The album has an eerie presence, especially in the title track and “It Seemed the Better Way”—both of which have a philosophical bearing and a multitude of possible referents. “Now it’s much too late to turn the other cheek. Sounded like the truth, but it’s not the truth today. I better hold my tongue.” The opening humming in “It Seemed the Better Way” is reminiscent of Rufus Wainwright’s “Oh, What a World,” though Cohen’s song spirals downward instead of upward as in Wainwright’s masterpiece.
The title track to You Want it Darker is almost humorous in the way in which Cohen takes on the dare. “You want it darker? I’m ready my lord” (the question mark is mine). Yeah, he can go dark. Cohen returns to Biblical passages in this song, as well as in “Treaty” (“I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine”). “Traveling Light,” with its tender violin underlay, is another highpoint: “I’m running late. They’ll close the bar. I used to play one mean guitar.” He’s traveling light now—nothing left to lose at the end of a great artistic career. Interestingly the last song on this last effort by Cohen is an instrumental—“String Reprise/Treaty.” No voice, no interpretation—and still we wonder a treaty with whom? Himself? God? We will never know. It is for us to figure out—that’s the whole point of listening, isn’t it?
For me whenever a great artist passes, I think of my moment of first discovery. For me it was watching Macabe and Mrs. Miller. Is there a more beautiful opening passage in American cinema than Cohen’s “The Stranger Song” playing in the background—like a solemn afterthought, almost—as Warren Beatty, draped with soggy furs makes his slow way on horseback over the cold, dripping western landscape? “He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.” As if Cohen suggested: aren’t we all? As if Cohen suggested: “listen to this song—some comfort here.”