The songs of Leonard Cohen vibrate with the intensity of longing. His voice brought that longing to life, displaying a mixture of warmth and detachment which drew the listener in. Cohen’s songs dwell in the region where God and sexuality meet, where desire itself becomes a form of religion. Both Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan challenged their times with lyrics which went well beyond the conventional platitudes of contemporary popular music. But for all that there were many differences between the two artists. Dylan raged against injustice in the manner of an Old Testament prophet, whereas Cohen appeared more in the guise of a healer, assuaging the brokenness of the world with words of wisdom and hope.
Leonard Cohen’s passing in 2016 at the age of 82 has brought an end to a career that was constantly evolving, his last album, You Want it Darker, being released only three weeks before his death. This stilling of a creative force has underlined, for those who need reminding, what a singular artist he was as a songwriter and performer. His recorded statements on the craft of songwriting are amongst the most profound and illuminating of any songwriter, yet one side-effect of this self-awareness was that he found the process of writing difficult and often lengthy. His struggles with ‘Hallelujah’ are evidence of this. When Cohen asked Dylan how long a recent song of his had taken him to write, he replied “15 minutes”. Cohen in turn admitted that ‘Hallelujah’ had taken him several years to complete.
Cohen’s more considered approach to songwriting stems in part from his origins as a poet, who expected his creations to be appreciated at leisure and enjoyed for their complex use of metaphor and subtle emotional resonances. This sensibility was carried over into his songwriting, so that the density of imagery in a song like ‘Suzanne’ or ‘Last Year’s Man’ is astonishing, and like all great poetry yields new insights every time. He later favoured a more colloquial approach to songwriting, and his songs from 1988’s I’m Your Man onwards benefit from a humorous and world-weary persona which is conveyed in the delivery as much as in the lyrics.
Cohen’s delivery, including his distinctive vocal timbre, is an under-appreciated aspect of his genius. His voice was an even less likely vehicle for song than that of Bob Dylan, who at least had an eccentric, utterly individual way of delivering a lyric which creates its own kind of music and is able to act as a stimulus for fellow musicians. Cohen’s vocal intonation, by contrast, could be very flat, particularly on his early albums, though those who say he lacked emotion need only listen to the chorus of ‘Bird On a Wire’ (“If I have been unki-i-i-ind…”) to hear an artist who could on occasion strain his limited vocal range to searing emotional effect.
Doubts about Cohen’s vocal capabilities have sometimes extended to other aspects of his musicality as well. He is often seen as primarily lyrics-driven artist in the European tradition exemplified by Jacques Brel. Yet, as a recent tribute to his musicianship by Dylan testifies, Cohen’s musical sensibility is a fundamental aspect of his artistic outlook. His early work shows off his familiarity with flamenco guitar techniques as displayed in, for example, the underrated ‘Master Song’ from his debut Songs of Leonard Cohen, a song which also illustrates his talent for mysterious, elusive storytelling. Later on he added Gypsy violin and middle-eastern oud to his musical palette, while from Various Positions onwards he frequently used synthesizers, the limited capabilities of some of the models he used brilliantly undercutting the emotional depth of his lyrics with a layer of cheap tackiness and sleaze. This works particularly well on songs such as ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ and ‘Everybody Knows’ where an element of human degradation is inseparable from the meaning of the song. The end result is to fuse a yearning for transcendence with a recognition of our all too human failings in a way which recalls the collision of the humdrum and the spiritual in the music of Gustav Mahler.
Cohen’s lyrics similarly often contrast a bemused empathy for our imperfect lot with the belief that a vision of unsullied beauty remains within our grasp. Feminine beauty often seems to inspire in him an almost awestruck response, particularly when combined with nakedness:
“I need to see you naked, / In your body and your thought” (‘Ain’t No Cure for Love’)
“I love to see you naked over there / Especially from the back” (‘Take This Longing’)
Another Eulogizer has previously compared Suzanne Vega’s evocation of a perfect world to the work of Jan Vermeer. I would like to continue this notion by drawing a parallel between Leonard Cohen and another artist of the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt. Like Rembrandt’s, Cohen’s art is essentially introverted and meditative, although always remaining down to earth and laced with dry wit. Just as Rembrandt’s most profound work dates from his final decades, so Cohen seemed to get better as he aged, coming to terms with his disappointments and confronting the world’s darkness by displaying compassion and grace. Like Rembrandt again, he is drawn to occasions which reveal our frailty and weakness and he can reveal the beauty that shines forth even in the midst of the most sordid situations.
There is a verse in ‘Hallelujah’ which parallels one of Rembrandt’s most beautiful pictures. The line “Your faith was strong but you needed proof / You saw her bathing on the roof / Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you” refers to the Biblical story of David and Bathsheba, a tale of power, desire and jealousy which ends with Bathsheba’s husband being deliberately sent to his almost certain death in battle so that king David can have her for himself. Rembrandt portrayed the moment when the Bathsheba, still naked from her bath, receives a love letter from the king, her wistful expression mirroring her feelings as she contemplates her fate. Rembrandt movingly captures both her beauty and her vulnerability at this crucial moment.Cohen’s alluding to this story of lust and injustice in ‘Hallelujah’ similarly reflects his sense of beauty in brokenness which runs like a leitmotif throughout much of his work. As he sings elsewhere in the song,
“It doesn’t matter which you heard / The holy or the broken Hallelujah”
Nowhere does this vision ring forth with such poetic force as in ‘Anthem’ from Cohen’s bleak album of 1992, The Future:
“There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”
Here is as close as we can get to the heart of Cohen’s view of the human condition, of life as an arena of struggle, injustice and imperfection whose very flaws suggest the outlines of a more beautiful and harmonious world glimpsed through the cracks. It is given to few artists to share this beauty hidden beneath the texture of our daily lives. Leonard Cohen, together with Mahler and Rembrandt, was one of them.