The life force smoldered to the end. Then it departed from Leonard Cohen’s 82-year-old body on November 7 and left in its ghostly wake multiple entryways into a towering career that spanned six decades. If you’re new to Cohen’s work, choose any of the doors by which others have gained access to the Canadian native’s art: his first book of poems Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956); his novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966); Judy Collin’s 1966 hit version of “Suzanne”; Cohen’s debut LP Songs of Leonard Cohen; Jennifer Warnes’ exquisite 1987 homage Famous Blue Raincoat; the then 53-year-old Cohen’s 1988 popular breakthrough I’m Your Man; Jeff Buckley’s epic and historic 1994 version of “Hallelujah”; the 2005 film, I’m Your Man, which documented Hal Wilner’s tribute concerts with Nick Cave, Teddy Thompson, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, U2 with Cohen, and others; or the concert recordings from Cohen’s virtually nonstop touring from 2008 through 2013. Or, as many will do now, meet Leonard Cohen as he ruminates on his anticipated, perhaps even welcomed, death in the nine breathtaking songs on his final album, You Want It Darker, released on October 21. Deepen your familiarity by reading Sylvie Simmons’ definitive biography, I’m Your Man, and David Remnick’s probing and wrenching profile in the Oct. 17 issue of The New Yorker.
Wherever you enter, it’s like stepping into one of many interconnected caves, each illuminated by words and music—even the poetry and prose flicker to musical cadences and implied melodies—that challenge, push back, but never completely banish the darkness at the heart of Cohen’s muse. The shadows on the walls change from chamber to chamber: a poet’s garret at McGill University in Montreal or in London or on the Greek island of Hydra; a room in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City in the late sixties; a cell in a Zen monastery on Mt. Baldy in Southern California. The apparitions are the lovers Cohen addresses in his songs, God in many guises, terrorists, nuns, the phantoms that swirl inside Cohen’s complex but strangely stalwart persona, seeded at birth in Westmount, Quebec, and deepened over the decades. Cohen usually identifies these shadows as “you,” and as a listener you might recognize or discover some (most often dark) aspect of your self. Every Cohen composition is in some way about what it means to be human, to be flawed, fragile, resilient, politically outraged, living, loving, worshipping, and dying.
Nobel Prizes notwithstanding, any sampling from Cohen’s catalog—for instance, “Suzanne,” “Bird on the Wire,” “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” “Hallelujah,” “Everybody Knows,” “Tower of Song,” “Ain’t No Cure for Love,” “First We Take Manhattan,” “The Future,” “Democracy,” “In My Secret Life, “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” and “Going Home”—stands with the best literary songwriting in the popular music of any era. And coming in a year that has called home Merle Haggard, David Bowie, Prince, Guy Clark, Ralph Stanley, George Martin, Bernie Worrell, Paul Kantner, Maurice White, Glen Frey, Scotty Moore, Bobby Vee, Leon Russell, and Mose Allison, among others, the loss of Cohen feels especially heavy, a sucker punch into the gut of philosophy, wisdom, compassion, and the quest for understanding.
As his friend Leon Wieseltier wrote in a New York Times memorial, “Leonard had an unusual inflection for darkness: He found in it an occasion for uplift. His work is animated by a laudatory impulse, an unexpected and profoundly moving hunger to praise the world in full view of it. His attitude of acceptance was not founded on anything as cheap as happiness. … He lived in a weather of wisdom, which he created by seeking it rather than by finding it. … Leonard sang always as a sinner. He refused to describe sin as a failure or a disqualification. Sin was a condition of creatureliness, and his feeling for our creatureliness was boundless.”
Writing and singing of the body and the mind, usually the naked body and the troubled mind, Cohen furnished his transitions as an artistic creature—from frustrated poet to depressive singer-songwriter to reluctant pop star to suave, sly, wry, and commanding concertizer—with music relevant to its time: the early folk-pop formulas of acoustic guitar and bass, strings, and harmony vocals, best heard on Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs from a Room; the sleek synth-pop of the 80s and the new millennium, introduced on Various Positions, perfected on I’m Your Man and The Future, and stripped to elegant minimalism on Ten New Songs; and the sophisticated large-band orchestrations that made the recent live albums, Live in London, Songs from the Road, Live in Dublin, and Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, indispensible additions to the canon. Cohen favored steady beats or pulses, but as he became a better, more assured, and sexier singer, he poured his ever-deepening, increasingly gruff and affecting voice over the rhythms like honey, playing with the pace and messing with the emotional gloss.
Cohen’s farewell masterpiece, You Want It Darker, his 14th studio album and his 11th release in the 21st century, is a perfect roundup and sendoff, at once stark in its basic instrumentation and programming and lush in its theatrical arrangements of voices, keyboards, and strings. In the tapestry of Cohen’s Jewish faith, Buddhist psychology, and agnostic skepticism, the light flashes off such lines as “Hineni, hineni / I’m ready, my lord,” “I heard the snake was baffled by his skin / He shed his scales to find the snake within,” “I’m old and I’ve had to settle / On a different point of view,” “I guess I’m just / Somebody who / Has given up on the me and you,” and “As he died to make men holy / Let us die to make things cheap.” It’s not only death that Cohen was staring into as he recorded You Want It Darker, but nirvana as well, the extinguishing of craving and suffering. He sings “We kill the flame” on the title track and “The wretched beast is tame / I don’t need a lover / So blow out the flame” on “Leaving the Table”—and adds “I’m out of the game.”
Nearly 30 years ago, Cohen released I’m Your Man, as pivotal an album as Songs of Leonard Cohen and You Want It Darker. On its final track, “Tower of Song,” against a deceptively simple-sounding arrangement of pulsating keyboards, steel guitar, drums, percussion, and angelic women’s backing vocals (Jennifer Warnes and Jude Johnstone adding doo-wop choruses of “day doo dum dum”), he whisper-sings two of his funniest couplets: “Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey / I ache in the places where I used to play” and “I was born like this, I had no choice / I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” They sandwich one of his most evocative verses:
I said to Hank Williams: How lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song
Was Cohen placing Williams at the apex of a hierarchy of poets, composers, and singers, which might have included Lorca, Ginsberg, Brecht and Weill, Ray Charles, and Nina Simone? Or was he imagining a hereafter for misfit musicians, as implied by the song’s closing stanza (“But 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”)? In any case, Cohen’s window has never been and never will be a hundred stories below that of any other songwriter, in this lifetime or the next.