Sunday, November 20th, 2016

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen was the stalwart documentarian of the middle distance between mind and myth and spirit. He was everybody’s man, everybody’s shepherd-stranger: your name rolled too intimately and easily in the mouth. He was in it for keeps. For my part, his music has ferried and sheltered me through moments of challenge and depth without underestimating the dive, the strain of the lungs.

So here I am at the foot of the Tower of Song, and I think you’re all here too — Of anything we learn here, let it be the courage to think about what we really believe about the heart and distill it and give of it as well as we’re able.

L. Cohen, sincerely, thank you.

Gin Hart on “Suzanne

Suzanne has persisted in me, has iterated and reiterated, since first listen. Very few songs have been cartography to my traverse of selfhood. In the beginning, I, a child, had boundaries so soft as to turn the sheer deluge of feeling(s – light/dark/good/bad/mine/yours::everythingness) into pain. Suzanne took my hand and led me to the river and I was overcome by her tenderness and perfection. To be(come) her was what it meant. What it meant. By that time, I was no stranger to archetypes generally, but had never come across a vision of femininity that contained, simultaneously, lilt and depth and some certain madness.

And, like, I got older and more disappointed by the world and young men and myself for not coming back to me resplendent with song. I was all “Okay, yeah, I’ve seen Garden State,” and I listened to Suzanne (on repeat, still) and was mad, so mad, at LC for daring to touch the perfect body, which he had captured (in its several senses) and kept and given and seemed so right about when, I mean, who was she?? How did she fucking feel??? She seemed to me the Ur-Manic Pixie Dream Girl and I hated so much how I still wanted to be her. Disillusionment winced and then raged its way into cynicism, all to keep from feeling the actual feeling – ugliness, inadequacy; too many rags, not enough feathers. Still, it’s risky to build pedestals atop pedestals, that shit’s structurally unsound.

Now? God, I don’t know. I have practice convincingly becoming. I have experience showing people where to look. I have the heart wreckage I wanted at fourteen in order to earn the mournful transcendence of understanding all my favorite songs. It’s, um, whatever. I’m more interested in latter half third verse things. Garbage/flowers/seaweed. Leaning toward love as in leaning toward the sun as in ceding to feeling as biological necessity.

Turns out I don’t really want to be Suzanne after all. I want to be our man. Or the two of them together. The honey sunshine, shit, I want moments – Bay-be. Take me. To the. Fee-ling. To drink some fucking Constant Comment with the inner truth of tea and oranges that come all the way from China. To experience love or lust or general amity that kisses me on the forehead and at least half-convinces me of divinity.

What persists the most is the concept of mutually assured perfection (a way of breathing rather than a state of being), no matter how temporary. Holy travelers, holy fools, holding hands. To put it in another man’s mouth, at the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe, and I do.

Edward Okulicz on “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye

It would not be an exaggeration, nor would it be a statement of criticism, to say that “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” is very much like “Suzanne,” a career-defining song in its own right. Yet I like “Suzanne,” but I love “Hey.” What attracts me to it its uncluttered gentleness, capturing moments of pleasure and mournfulness without embellishment, and vividly so: “your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm.” Without the arrangements and drums that he never wanted in the first place, “Hey” is sorrow diluted only by tenderness.

Much of Cohen’s early material was written in hotel rooms, and this perfectly evokes a feeling I have, and you might, today, that life is too many goodbyes with people you might not see again for sometime — lovers and friends and strangers — and too much love leaving the world after those goodbyes because it has no physical channels. Must we really force ourselves through the motions of saying goodbye at all? And in hindsight, knowing that this man’s voice deepened and his worldview hardened, who stared down death through song, I’m all the more impressed that he was, and always would be as recorded in thie song, a man who could freeze and be moved by a simple goodbye. Despite the depths it sometimes contained, his craft at its simplest seems the most impressive to me.

Mallory O’Donnell on “Stranger Song

Some Cohen lyrics are closer to poems than songs, more tautly-worded. There are no frills or fills in “Stranger Song.” Every line is weighed and balanced, a knife to be eagerly thrust into our tattered illusions of love. Whether it’s all really about cards, or drugs, or trains, or Joseph, or just… men, it’s a poem that tricks us into remembering all its laborious mythopoetic phrases, despite accompaniment that’s little more than a gauzy curtain of wide-eyed strums. We never quite decide who the stranger is, we don’t approach anything like a chorus, and we’re still not sure what role our singer occupies in the relationship depicted (my best guess is “all three”). Regardless, there is a line or five here that strips us bare and makes us twinge, whether it’s “a card that is so high and wild” or “curling up like smoke above his shoulder” or “it’s hard to hold the hand of anyone/who is reaching for the sky just to surrender” (that’s mine) : we’ve all known that kind of man (or what have you) before.

Gin Hart on “Master Song“/”Teachers

[My kink is being schooled in a way that’s ultimately useful to my cognitive expansion and metaphysical betterment and I’m constantly striving within and through my ~imperfect passion~ and searching out teachers and mentors who can, oops, become//masters, and is that a falsity, I mean, is it? My kink is being worshipful and proving worthy, which owes fealty more to myth & metaphor than humans with bodies and parts.]

[Really it’s about the golden string, like the red cord, like molecular entanglement, like the guitar parts in both songs which ring ancient & liturgical – a clean & complex weave. Objects for a planar ascendance. A climbing rope, a ladder… am I making sense? Science and philosophy and magic and faith are a mud and we either try to extract solute from solvent or we try to compress it into a cool & shiny rock or we just scrape & scrabble through the mud and find each other and wrassle over wisdoms. Ferocity of test is such verisimilitude, like, I hold at your neck the gom jabbar. To be human rakes through you so.]

Have I carved enough my Lord?
Child, you are a bone
And you wrap up his tired face in your hair
And he hands you the apple core.

[For who is the koan who reveals the most Truth-shaped space unto thee?]

Ian Mathers on “Please Don’t Pass Me By (A Disgrace)

When I first heard Leonard Cohen as a child, he seemed omniscient. I would have to be an adult myself before I realized just how much the malevolent purrs and hums of a song like “First We Take Manhattan” also contained the uncertainty, self-mockery, and genuine inquiry that characterized so much of his work and so much of life for most of us. As a kid, adults seem all-powerful anyway, so this deep-voiced, chuckling sage seemed more an extreme example rather than a break from type.

One of the great joys of growing up with Cohen’s work is first gradually and then all at once understanding how his genuine cool (in multiple senses of the word) isn’t so much covering up the kind of panic, desperation, depression, and general striving for… something that marks life as existing hand in hand with all of them. Yes, Cohen was in touch enough with stillness and grace to become a Buddhist monk; but as he would tell you, he got there by being frantically driven by his demons. As a result, as much as I still love and gain strength from songs like “Suzanne”s and “Everybody Knows,” I have a special affection for those songs where Cohen lets himself be more obviously as shaggy, wracked, and somehow still beaming as he is on the cover of Songs of Love and Hate, the self-laceration of “Dress Rehearsal Rag” and the self-mocking lust of “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On” and the continued wry reversals you find in his songs and poetry.

The ne plus ultra of this, and maybe of his whole career, is this rough beast of a song he never actually released in ‘finished’ form, just on 1973’s Live Songs. The inciting incident, true or not, was Cohen walking in New York and encountering a man wearing the following placard: “Please don’t pass me by — I am blind, but you can see — I’ve been blinded totally — Please don’t pass me by”. From this phrasing he and his band vamp for 13 minutes as an increasingly fevered Cohen insists that we see the man and read the sign and understand some things. (A note: some of his language, while perfectly in line with 1970 when he performed the song, does not work now — but that aside the power of the song and the message of the song and Cohen’s performance of the song is undiminished 45 years later.) At first it seems like a stunt or a joke or an ego trip, but as Cohen and his backing singers repeat the refrain from the sign over and over the songs gains the kind of power of radical empathy that Lester Bangs described Van Morrison’s “Madam George” having, as Cohen makes mention of the victims of the Holocaust and then says “Now there’s nothing that I tell you that will help you connect the blood tortured night with the day that comes next. But I want it to hurt you, I want it to end. Oh, won’t you be naked for me?” That latter is maybe the least sexual mention of nakedness in Cohen’s oeuvre (which does not, necessarily, mean totally non-sexual); it feels more like it’s talking of the nakedness of Revelation, where we see each other clearly instead of dimly. And then, Cohen prays on this stage with a despairing reverency, we will understand that we are not exempt, that we are not the man passing the blind man in the street, that the sign’s message is our message, that we are all pleading to our fellow humans and to the universe not to pass us by, and then maybe we’ll stop hurting ourselves and each other.

The subtitle of the song is “(A Disgrace)” not because Cohen is embarrassed of how abject he is here, how desperately he is pleading, but because he is talking about the lack of grace in our broken human understanding and existence, and lamenting what it makes of us and the world. Cruelty and our ability to normalize cruelty is the disgrace,and so is our ability to know this and do nothing. He doesn’t want you to sit up there, “deep in your velvet seats,” and nod your head at the wisdom of the empathy he is preaching. Cohen knows how easy it is to pay lip service to this kind of idea without really accepting it. “But I promise you friends, that you’re going to be singing this song: it may not be tonight, it may not be tomorrow, but one day you’ll be on your knees and I want you to know the words when the time comes. Because you’re going to have to sing it to yourself, or to another, or to your brother. You’re going to have to learn to sing this song… I know that you still think that its me. I know that you think that there’s somebody else. I know that these words aren’t yours. But I tell you friends that one day,” and then he repeats “you’re going to get down on your knees” a full eight times. Life, the human condition, the world, brings all of us to our knees. It’s certainly done that to Cohen, when he ends the song with a plea that his audience not be “the [people] that you came with,” to become someone else instead, which leads him to offer himself up in what feels less like an object lesson or hopeful example and more like a dark night of the soul: “Oh don’t be the person that you came with. Ah, I’m not going to be. I can’t stand him. I can’t stand who I am. That’s why I’ve got to get down on my knees. Because I can’t make it by myself. I’m not by myself anymore because the man I was before he was a tyrant, he was a slave, he was in chains, he was broken”. And then he sings it again. He has been blinded, oh, totally. But please don’t pass him by.

Anthony Easton on “Bird on the Wire

A Brief Chronology:
0-3: My mother sang this to me before I was born and as a lullaby afterwards.

9: During a grade four music appreciation class, I brought in my folks’ records, including Dylan, Baez and Buffy St Marie. The teacher vetoed “Bird on the Wire.” It was not considered age appropriate.

12: I went to boarding school, and on the first Christmas back, my hip cousin gave me a copy of a Best Of compilation. Later that year, I bought Stranger Music, his collected poems. I traded it back and forth. For someone who had decades on me, it felt like someone I had discovered by myself.

15: Grade Ten, thinking subversive thoughts while watching Christian Slater at a pirate radio station. This was not my mother’s romantic singing “So Long, Marianne,” it was not even the hope of “Bird on the Wire.” I went back to Cohen. I started singing “Bird” as a way of getting through high school.

18: I got really into Cabaret, and also cabaret. I started to listen to Marianne Faithfull. She sang “Tower of Song.” I converted to Catholicism. I missed how the list making could be sanctified. I thought “Bird on a Wire” would be as funny as “Tower of Song” was, or as sexy as “Chelsea Hotel” was. It was neither, and both.

25: I stopped listening. I moved to Toronto. I hung out with artists and writers. I would see his records in other people’s collections, hear it in bookstores, not quite on the radio. I cried once hearing “Bird on The Wire,” listening to CBC in the back of a cab after a disaster of a holiday party. I still know all the words.

32: I moved to Montreal. I heard “Bird on the Wire” some weekdays, going to school. The buskers liked “Hallelujah” more. It was on a jukebox at a St Supplice dive, the Mile End record stores were lousy with vinyl copies of the Best Ofs. One dinner with friends, they pointed out where he had his house. I heard stories, like he was their own patron saint, their own angel. I started listening to unfashionable Quebecois pop country from the 70s. I hated Montreal, I hated Leonard Cohen.

34: I spent three weeks on the Gaspe, with my friend Wendy. 14 hours from Montreal. A handsome boy on the train back sang “Bird on the Wire” to his girlfriend. I returned to Lenny.

36: Arguing the night he died, that he was good, I stumbled onto something more. I could not criticise or argue in favour of Cohen, for the same reason I could not argue against my mother. I called her, and we sang each other Bird on a Wire, remembering most of the words.

Katie Gill on “Famous Blue Raincoat

I don’t consider myself a Leonard Cohen expert the same way that some of my Jukebox colleagues do. I like him, I’ve got a few albums, I’m a fan but I don’t know if I’m a fan. Still, one song’s hit me so much that ever since I heard the news of his passing, I’ve just queued it up over and over again. “Famous Blue Raincoat” was the first Leonard Cohen song that pulled me in and it’s the main Cohen song that’s haunted me ever since. It’s mysterious, esoteric, and delightfully ambiguous, something you can dive deep into and pull apart. This is a song that you and your bestie can debate for hours, pulling it apart at the seams, comparing it to Cohen’s life, speculating about everything and nothing, coming up with vastly different interpretations that are simultaneously correct. It’s the final paper for your Introduction To Poetry class. And yet at the same time, it’s simple. A relatively simple vocal line, so simple that it’s practically speaking at some points, an understated guitar part, and quiet violins. It’s soft and lilting, almost a music box in the composition. The harmonies effortlessly float in the background, borderline ethereal as they match the sheer resignation mixed with sadness of the song. It’s impressive how something so simple can also be so complex — and it’s a tribute to Cohen’s strength as a songwriter that he manages to pull it off so effortlessly. And that last line? It’s quite possibly one of my favorite lines in music history. Every performance I’ve watched, Cohen delivers that line with just the perfect mix of resignation and bittersweet nostalgia. I don’t think he’s ever delivered that last line badly. A perfect ending to one of music’s best songs. Sincerely, a friend.

Rebecca Gowns on “Chelsea Hotel #2”

I am continually frustrated with Leonard Cohen. His music means different things on different days. This morning, “Chelsea Hotel #2” struck me as very tender. Last night, it struck me as scathing. It is both at once. Of all our modern songwriters, his lyrics contain the most ambiguity; they’re about God, and missing sex with your ex, and politics, and the condition of man. Or none of them at all. He’s writing from his heart, but he’s also writing as a character. It annoys me that so often, I see the petty layer first. The facetiousness, the phrases like “giving me head,” “limousines wait in the street,” and “I don’t think of you” stick out, glaring –- and it’s only with a second, compassionate look that I see the robin, the workers in song, and the lilt in his voice as he hits the repeated phrases “remember you well” and “I need you/I don’t need you.” I’m irritated by the introductions of this song, which over the years, seemed to be poking fun at the woman while also naming her plainly; just as much as I’m touched at the evolution of this song from a witty sketch of a time and place, with his young tenor/baritone voice, into more recent renditions, with his deep bass voice, pulling out the words with the weight of memory. His live recordings of this song range from simple acoustic versions to extravagant arrangements with organ and back-up singers… and all of them work. Cohen is covered and revered so much precisely because of his ambiguity. His words are poetic, filling any vessel; his tunes are adjustable, and always recognizable. Truthfully, I don’t think of him that often. When I do, it’s with this same bittersweet quality: I consider him, I mock him, I cherish him; he was ugly, and a robin, and a maker of songs.

Brad Shoup on “Lover Lover Lover

There are many ways to speak with God; there are even more ways to speak to God. In our revolt, in our ecstasy, in our shame, in our sin and mercy: we cry the name and listen for ours. Is that a dialogue? Here, the man puts in for a new name, and God neatly sidesteps the request. The man is bound to the name, bound to the body, bound to the rebellion. “Lover,” he cries seven times, “come back to me”. And, like a reflection, the request returns exact. There is anguish in this conversation — the brittle strumming, echoed in the second side’s “There Is a War,” keeps cutting itself off — and there is also ritual. The cry in that refrain is the oldest ceremony we know. For the last verse, the singer steps between the parties: “May the spirit of this song/May it rise up pure and free.” In a 1976 performance taped for French TV, Cohen prefaces the song — given a backbeat and a TK Records strut on the chorus — by noting that he wrote the song for both sides of 1973’s Arab-Israeli War. Four years later, in Tel Aviv, he credited the song to the “grace and bravery” of the Israeli side alone. Either way, he was there: wandering the Sinai for a week, singing for Ariel Sharon and various bored grunts, working on this song. Even with the background, that last verse still jars: this struggle, Cohen suggests, this ragged pursuit of God’s absence, this is “a shield against the enemy”. And yet… he’s right. The intractable fleshy conflicts, the endless violent turning away of faces from faces: these are also conversations with God. They are cries awaiting the only possible rejoinder. On Cohen’s 1979 tour (compiled and released as Field Commander Cohen), he replaced this verse with an elegant statement of divine grace: “You may come to me in happiness/Or you may come to me in grief/You may come to me in your deepest faith/Or you may come in disbelief”. But the man knows. That’s why he’s speaking.

Mark Sinker on “Who By Fire

New Skin for the Old Ceremony was a birthday present, but her-to-me or me-to-her? That I don’t remember. The very late 70s, my first girlfriend E___. I was super-invested in post-punk, an obsessive rock-write parser with a Year Zero bent. She loved the music she loved because she loved it, and she loved LC. She was sweet and smart and deeply unhappy — I didn’t really realise the last till it was more or less over, which didn’t help. Clues all over Ceremony, of course — but I wouldn’t know how to read them for years, which was also a good deal of what went wrong. This one’s the shortest on the LP, a partial echo of a haunting Jewish prayer (“Who by fire, who by water”), but, besides being a slip of a song, it’s just slippy everywhere. Are we presenting ourselves to God, is God (or God’s butler) asking who’s here, is it a third party describing the encounter? “Who shall I say is calling?”: Calling as in calling for help; calling as visitors call? It’s a list song about death, obviously — but is its playful range (“by night-time,” “by barbiturate,” “by his lady’s command”) a suggestive synecdoche of all possible ways to die, or is it subtly drawing attention to a key subset? Is there a shared quality to this subset, sketched in the form of a puzzle? Why does Janis Ian’s duetting voice — gently whispered, hardly engaging at all with subject or mood — work so well? Melody and some of the language have a timeless courtly stateliness, offset against elements as precisely modern as its unresolved ending, a lovely prowling orchestral fragment that simply fades out. Maybe God isn’t involved at all: a cry gone up to an emptied heaven. I think I still think about music a way E___ would dislike. Both ways are here, though, and the gulf that sometimes binds.

Jonathan Bogart on “Iodine

Death of a Ladies’ Man is a strange record in Leonard Cohen’s catalog. Critically and commercially reviled at the time for Phil Spector’s widescreen Technicolor production, deeply unfashionable in the verité late 70s, it has since been retroactively embraced by ironists, mutant disco fetishists, and lovers of kitsch. I’ve been all of those things at one time or another, but perhaps the biggest reason it’s my favorite Leonard Cohen album is that a) fuck albums on general principle and b) I’d never really loved Leonard Cohen before hearing it. The man could undoubtedly turn a phrase, but the poky rumble of his voice was a signifier of seriousness in a field (pop) that I’ve never loved for its seriousness, and perhaps my relative sexlessness and earnest evangelical breeding made me ungracious toward his thematic specialties. So for me the Spectorian production was not chintzy overfurbishment or a tasteless spectacle worthy of the 45th US president, but something to latch onto, a methadone hit of the sonic variety that Cohen’s classic sepulchral guitar-and-voice albums had always lacked, a well-appointed path into the songs rather than a gussied-up curtain obscuring them. “Iodine,” with its cracking, echoed snare beat and the frenzied clarinet blowouts ending every verse, became my favorite song on the album, not because it reminded me of sainted midperiod Dylan (snare from “Like a Rolling Stone,” reeds from “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35”), but because the brevity and clarity of the central image was strong enough to support one of Cohen’s more full-throated performances, and because the clarinet solos shrieked out of a pre-Spector world, wilder and rawer than the stately 60s teenage emotion which is pop’s mythical origin story: that’s not the Wrecking Crew, that’s klezmer. It’s probably not the greatest thing for a Gentile to confess, that I didn’t truly love Leonard Cohen until I could hear Jewishness in his music, but we all start from somewhere.

Jonathan Bogart on “Hallelujah

The sly rhyme of “do ya” with “hallelujah” is reason enough for this song to exist. Long after the server farms hosting the ghostly digital reels of the wretched Hollywood product that has misapplied it to prop up unearned emotional montages have crumbled to dust, when the memory of the name Jeff Buckley has become nothing more than a self-regarding sentimental whisper in desert winds, when the megachurches where it was once sung without a trace of irony have been scoured of all life and bleached of the stain, if enough traces of English and Hebrew remain locked away in human memory, someone else will discover that rhyme and make someone else laugh. Lord haste the day.

Alfred Soto on “If It Be Your Will

I hear three things in 1984’s “If It Be Your Will” — a ballad of courtly love; a prayer to Yahweh too; also, Jennifer Warnes offering atonement for “Up Where We Belong.” The breakthrough is each time the chorus comes around, in which Cohen’s not yet dessicated burr is a whisper of humility, and Warnes answers him syllable for syllable while an electric piano recalls a bygone era of studio rock. This 151st Psalm hasn’t inspired many covers. A song that reduces “Hallelujah” to rubble won’t get covered.

Thomas Inskeep on “First We Take Manhattan

Prior to 1988’s I’m Your Man, released during my senior year of high school, I’d not paid a lick of attention to Leonard Cohen. My only real prior run-in with him had been via Jennifer Warnes’s brilliant album of Cohen songs, 1987’s Famous Blue Raincoat (which I’d guess I read a review of in either Rolling Stone or SPIN, and then convinced my local public library to get). All I knew about Cohen was that he was some sort of folk singer, and that he had a semi-famous song about getting head on an unmade bed at NYC’s Chelsea Hotel, where Sid & Nancy died. But I loved, loved, the Warnes album. It was progressive pop, beefed up and a little sexed up. So I’d been prepped a bit for I’m Your Man, two of whose songs had premiered on the Warnes record, “Ain’t No Cure for Love,” and “First We Take Manhattan.” Her version of “Manhattan” kinda-sorta rocked, with a stinging guitar solo from Stevie Ray Vaughan, and lyrics as indecipherable as anything from the Dylan songbook (and with whom I was fairly obsessed in high school). But Cohen’s was almost nothing like it, apart from those lyrics. It was heavy on the synths, brilliantly playing against his old man’s croak, with cooing femme backing vocals offsetting his voice even further. I didn’t understand it — I’m still not sure I do, Genius be damned — but I loved the sound of it, the way it grabbed me by the neck and wouldn’t let go. And still hasn’t. That synth trumpet drifting through the intro; those unapologetic heavy, heavy synthesizers pinning the song to the ground; the assemblage of vocals (including Warnes herself, a longtime Cohen backing vocalist): it all combines to make something I can literally listen to 10 times in a row, over and over and over. The rest of I’m Your Man is pretty great, but “Manhattan” is fucking genius. Oddly, I’ve never felt much need to spend much other time with his catalog, either before or after Man. I know he’s a great, poetic songwriter, but really, his trip to “Manhattan” and his “plywood violin” are all I need. For that alone, I’ll miss him.

Claire Biddles on “Ain’t No Cure for Love

Leonard Cohen, like so many historic figures, had his epiphany in a church. A last ditch attempt at shelter after a lifetime of searching. Soaking, freezing, kneeling on splintered wood, only to be told there’s nothing to be done. The epiphany was followed by resignation. Mine was on a train seven years ago. Not as symbolic, I know. You were on the platform and I saw you until you disappeared on the stairs and I felt the ghost of your lips on my cheekbone and I realised, right then — oh, I’ll never stop loving you. I listened to “Ain’t No Cure For Love” for the whole train journey, an hour and a half. I’m listening to it now. Are you reading this? Do you know this is all for you? I’ve tried to fix it. Leonard tried drinking, science, religion, and I’ve tried all of those too. I thought I needed a cure but I just needed an excuse. Ultimately it’s a higher power who grants the permission to carry on. For Leonard it was the holy whispers, the angels, represented on earth by the voices of women that he always amplified. For me, the higher power is the song itself, Leonard’s voice — the voice of someone who knows how this feels, and who knows how this will end. Knows that this can never end. You know it’s never going to end for me, don’t you? “I don’t have to be forgiven for loving you so much/it’s written in the scripture, it’s written there in blood.” This song is my scripture and my pathetic excuse.

Megan Harrington on “I’m Your Man

I first met Leonard Cohen in the context of sadness: “Famous Blue Raincoat” on a mixtape of songs about broken hearts posted on The times have changed, the website has changed, and Cohen no longer sounds so steeped in sorrow and betrayal as he did to my virgin ears. Take “I’m Your Man” — the strange, wheezing synthesizer, neither here nor there, neither pathetic nor amorous, is a lethal dose of abjection but it’s far too repulsive to ever depress. To contrast the unsettling and ersatz, Cohen offers a metronomic beat, the sort that underscores so much of his catalog. This tick-tock is the thump of a pulse, in your wrists, through your neck, beneath your ribs, and it suggests a mundane ordinariness; breathing is the most essential, the most routine, the most involuntary function of life. Taken together, the organic and the artificial, “I’m Your Man” is a profound declaration of love and lust, a mythological response to the unasked question ‘what do women want?’ Cohen believes he’s found the answer, so confident that he laces the song with approving coos in the form of backing vocals. He’s so willing to be anything, everything, that he hears the soft moan of desire before it’s ever voiced. He’s not presumptuous, not even eager, he’s giving over his years of experience and all his wisdom. This, he says with a certain throaty gravitas, is what works. And he’s right.

Cassy Gress on “Take This Waltz

Learning that a familiar musician has died always lends a strange displacement to their music, for me. Rather than just “the duet they did in 1982 with so-and-so” or “the last single before they stopped pretending they didn’t all hate each other,” it all suddenly becomes music from an alternate timeline, some parallel universe where the span of my life still aligns with theirs. But Leonard Cohen always sounded like he may have been in a parallel universe anyway, his cloudy voice observing us from a distant, dark corner of time, or from an heavily color-saturated balcony in Venice, or from the shadowy underside of an umbrella. “Take This Waltz,” while not Cohen’s own lyric, is sopping with traditional, grown-up romance. Cohen and Jennifer Warnes sound like golden ballrooms and languorous box turns, like a familiar lover, still, despite everything. His voice always did carry that almost frightening intimacy, of someone who you either know exceptionally well now or did in a past life.

Hannah Jocelyn on “Tower of Song

Cohen occasionally discussed the art of songwriting in his own music — it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth — but rarely with as much focus as he does in “Tower of Song.” “Tower of Song” is about many other things as well, but primarily concerns Cohen’s own relationship with his music. Against a dirge-y keyboard loop, he goes through all his constant preoccupations — there are parts about love lost (the middle eight), there are parts about mortality (death is “that tower down the track”), and there’s some prescient social commentary — I don’t even need to say why a line like “the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor” is relevant. That last verse continues with “there’s a mighty judgment coming, but I may be wrong/You see, you hear these funny voices in the Tower of Song.” In light of that and I’m Your Man album-mate “Everybody Knows,” the same joke is going around multiple places — Cohen picked the most Cohen-esque time to die, given the current political climate. And judging from these lines, it’s as if Cohen already knew where the world would be when he passed on, and he could do nothing but warn us and watch it happen.

Of course, this song is also one of his funniest, Cohen sounding almost amused by his own weariness. Aside from the remarkably strange keyboard solos that bookend each verse, Cohen has this amazing moment where he says “I was born like this/I had no choice/I was born with a gift of a golden voice,” and that voice drops to the very bottom of his range, which would become ever lower when he covered the song with U2 many years on. Just before that verse, he mentions looking to Hank Williams for guidance, but while Cohen can hear Williams, Williams is too many floors above him to respond. In that moment, as with the “golden voice” lines, Cohen sounds trapped, a prisoner to his own calling, but seemingly accepting of this fact. At different points, this is both a boastful song and a self-deprecating one — Cohen’s delivery is so deadpan it’s difficult to tell. This dry awareness would continue up to winning a 1993 Juno Award, “Only in Canada could somebody with a voice like mine win Vocalist of the Year.” From there, in the 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, his acceptance speech was reciting this song nearly word for word, after making a joke about how his brand of music is decidedly not rock and roll. The video of his induction is indescribable in both its humor and its power, with people in the audience gradually realizing that he’s not just quoting one verse, but all of them together, as Cohen, already tired of existence at 54, speaks those words with even greater weight at 74.

I hope Cohen gets his answer from Hank Williams. Lord knows he’s earned it.

Sabina Tang on “Democracy

Leonard Cohen began “Democracy” when the Berlin Wall came down. He felt, he explained later, not elated but depressed. He did not believe democracy would come to the Eastern Bloc. He expected reversals, and pain. Democracy wasn’t an exportable product, like Coca-Cola; it was a religious ideal and so could only be coming, in the same present imperfect as Christ, to those who already believed. Later the song was co-opted by Bill Clinton, the change candidate at the time. Cohen expressed the hope that it would outlast the administration, like a well-built Volvo.

Edmund Burke, the 18th century statesman oft-cited as the father of modern conservatism, was a liberal (in his era) who broke with his party on the matter of the French Revolution. The Americans didn’t like taxes, but the French wanted to do away with everything. Burke saw the new world order sour as if he’d read an advance script. Like Joan Didion — the Silent Generation’s other oblique Cassandra — Leonard Cohen’s conservatism is Burkean. Instinctive and dyspeptic. The gorge rises, the gut says something’s wrong, a line’s been crossed. Things, probably even bad things, get torn down, and a void replaces them. Can you be right wing or left when God sends the deluge? But then, who’s Cohen to impose on the Boomer brats’ penchant for ideological loudness? If he croaks like an Old Testament prophet it’s largely genetics. Shouldn’t he limit himself to description?

Cohen wrote sixty verses of “Democracy” and kept six, including the weird bit about tidal floods in amorous array, as if to underline the Osirian nature of the presidential election cycle. He left the zingers to “The Future” (cutting floor sample: “First we killed the Lord, then we stole the Blues/This guttered people always in the news/But who really gets to laugh behind the Black man’s back/When he makes his little crack about the Jews?”). This one was to be unifying and anthemic. The music isn’t — it doesn’t soar, stomp, or strut, all of which can be found elsewhere on the album. Instead it marches, to a snare drum and a Jew’s harp, like a Trumbull painting. But I can’t accuse the poem of being too on the nose: it moves me inchoately to read “The brave, the bold, the battered/heart of Chevrolet.” Or — this’ll kill ya —

From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the USA

There is that feeling Canadians get, of watching a titanic struggle from the stage wings, just a bit muted and unreal. Or maybe that’s everyone.

Leonard Cohen died on Monday, before the United States voted on Tuesday. That was relief, after a niggling, unvoiced fear: what if it had been the shock? But it would not have been shock. Precarious positions made the most sense to Cohen. The young of every generation should be in the Resistance, he had said at times: “The Future” and “The Partisan” were merely the same song set fifty years apart. At other times that we are just at the beginning of the experiment, the edge of an unvisited whole.

Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa on “You Want it Darker

Earlier this year, the world lost its thin white chameleon to the cosmos. David Bowie left a final statement, though; a record which hasn’t stopped showing its wonders. Ten months later, and to wrap up a year that will live in infamy, Leonard Cohen, the poet laureate of doom, ascends to meet his maker. It’s inevitable to make comparisons between the two, as both of their final works obsessively approach the mysteries of Death while waving their goodbyes, but Bowie’s Blackstar — and particularly, the single “Lazarus” — explores mortality as an act of freedom, painting the Great Beyond as a great unknown through the controlled chaos of Jazz. Cohen offers a more chilling perspective: he has contemplated the darkness for half a century now, crafting beauty out of gloom and despair, ultimately guiding us through our own pessimism, but “You Want it Darker” is a sardonic reconciliation with the crushing force of age and disease, a kind of ode to the act of wearing off — the proverbial killing of the flame. While Bowie’s farewell can somehow be still interpreted as walking towards the light, Cohen’s is all about surrendering to the darkness. But it’s an admission of defeat that is born from empathy, not self-absorption. However, it’s the music where we find the track at its most urgent. The song’s threatening bassline feels like a post-punk mourner — interesting how Nick Cave has always picked up extensively from Cohen, and how Cohen seems to have taken a page from the Bad Seeds’ book this time around — and the choir/organ arrangements hover through it like announcing the inminence of something that’s about to get our whole world twisted and corroded. “You Want it Darker” couldn’t have come at a more appropiate time; it’s a fitting soundtrack to the fuckin’ nightmare we’re about to live through, which also makes it a perfect reminder of how much we’re gonna need his defiant, pitch-black wit and the healing power of his verses. Because this time we got it darker.

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