Just when you thought the year couldn’t get any lousier, Leonard Cohen died last week. Don’t be surprised; he’d been releasing concept albums about his own death for over a decade now, of which the acclaimed You Want It Darker (2016) was merely the latest. I could probably think of an even more grotesquely timed potential rockstar death, but this one is grotesque enough. In addition to everything else he was — poet, wordsmith, conceptmaster, religious seeker, suave scruffy ladies’ man, Zen monk, belated concert fixture — he was also a major political songwriter. “Democracy” (1992), for example, a parodically upbeat mock-patriotic march, broadcast his inspirational message of hope to the American people, a message that will prove heartwarming time and time again as we come together as a strong, unified, incontrovertibly conflict-free nation. Check this out:
It’s coming from a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It’s coming from the feel that this ain’t exactly real
Or it’s real but it ain’t exactly there
From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming
to the USA
If I hadn’t already bawled my eyes out last Tuesday night and Wednesday morning I’d cry.
Like many singer-songwriter heroes, Cohen wasn’t really a rock musician; he was an interloper who’d written poetry and two novels before trying his hand at music, and unlike Dylan, the literature tag sits more comfortably on him. I’ve dipped into the poetry and found Beautiful Losers (1966), his second novel, an amusing read. Many of his lyrics read just as well on the page as they sound when he sings them. Even so, the music contextualizes them, fleshes them out, adds extra layers of nuance and a sense of raw physical enjoyment, makes them signify in a popular context. As a poet he’s another poet; as a rock star he’s a fabulous character, a mystical Montrealer whose outfit comes complete with jacket and cigarette, who regularly convened with spiritual forces beyond our ken and fell into bed with women as slyly and effortlessly as one slips out of a kimono. Cohen was master of a tone whose high seriousness depends on a cultivated sense of the absurd and vice versa — his songs, deeply felt as they are, wouldn’t twinge your heartstrings with such alluring pathos if the pathos weren’t also somehow laughable, an approach captured in the way his plain recitation flickers with self-aware humor, as if a joke about people reciting poetry. Ascribing postmodernism to this archetypal Romantic feels too easy, too much a slick rationalization, but Cohen had a shtick and he performed it with distance. Fans who earnestly applaud his lost affairs and biblical sagas for their scale and sophistication, especially hetero men who take him as a romantic role model, should consider modernizing their taste. Those who relish extreme Romanticism with a smirk and a twinkle in the eye have the right idea. There’s something hopelessly doomed and delightful about a twentieth-century bohemian trying to catch that antiquated notion of Beauty before it wriggles from his fingers, learning to tango before history knocks him over and sweeps him along.
The music backing his shtick varied over the years, as was appropriate: stark, barely accompanied acoustic with intermittent orchestration in the early years; glitzy synthesizer and soulfully girly backup singers since the mid-’80s; kitschy, maximal, wall-of-sound pseudosoul when Phil Spector produced him, etc. The unifying factors to the aural settings throughout his career are that they dodge rock norms and flirt with what might, in a less appropriative context, be considered kitsch. “Bird On a Wire” (1968) and its soaring Hollywood strings over quiet plucking, “The Traitor” (1979) and its dignified, nearly medieval-sounding folk guitar, and “Come Healing” (2012) with its array of choirgirls cooing over the creaky-voiced man in the center, petting him and brushing his hair from his eyes — each a terrific song, each inhabiting an ironic gentility at odds with the source material. Cohen’s singing changed over the years too, although here the transformation was more strictly physical — always monotonous, his deadpan was if anything bleaker in 1967, when his clear voice projected fey self-delight, than in 2016, when his deep, parched croak suited the melancholy more closely. His songs are regularly called hymns, and even those who don’t believe in transcendence go to Cohen for grand themes and evocations of eternity instead of, say, real hymns. He always seemed to take sex more seriously than rock singers making a show of their libido, and he’s one of the few artists I wouldn’t laugh at for using the term “make love.” Some of his albums are better than others, naturally, but he was a notoriously compulsive perfectionist and he never made a bad one, rare for any artist active over such a long period. His loyalty to his own peculiar vision kept him inspired to the end.
For an introduction, buy The Essential Leonard Cohen (2002) plus the new album, which deserves to sell. I’m fond of the bloated, chintzy-orchestral, Phil Spector-produced Death of a Ladies Man (1977), and his spare, nimble debut Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967) too. If you prefer his equally chintzy synthpop mode, however, as I do, his best albums are I’m Your Man (1988) — which threads a confused, exciting love story around insane novelties like the terrorist-disco anthem “First We Take Manhattan” and the satirically paranoid “Jazz Police” — and The Future (1992), home to the aforementioned “Democracy” and a title track that might as well have predicted the future. You don’t have to believe in Jesus’s face on a slice of toast to feel freaked out that the man who wrote this song died when he did. “The Future,” a lithe, lounged-up dance number complete with backup singers murmuring “doo-doo do,” checks off every trope imaginable about apocalypse and the collapse of society. It’s got torture, totalitarianism, rape, drugs, environmental ruin, and that’s just the first stanza. Gosh—listen to the prophet:
There’ll be the breaking of the ancient western code
Your private life will suddenly explode
There’ll be phantoms, there’ll be fires on the road
And the white man dancin’
You’ll see a woman hanging upside down
Her features covered by her fallen gown
And all the lousy little poets coming round
Trying to sound like Charlie Manson
Yeah, the white man dancin’
Trump’s ascendance didn’t shock Cohen into death. He passed a day before the election. Nor would it, I don’t think, not in his straightforward, unpresumptuous calm, in his apparent capacity to look horror in the eye. You’ll be hearing from him baby, long after he’s gone: he’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the tower of song. Or: everybody knows the war is over. Everybody knows the good guys lost. Get ready for the future. It is murder.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.