Death of a Ladies’ Man: A Eulogy for Leonard Cohen

Sunday, January 10, 2016: a mere two days had passed since David Bowie released his sprawling record, Blackstar, and on that night, he passed away. Then, his album suddenly made sense. It became easier to decipher Bowie’s prophetic words – they were his own death, foretold. What was once confusing was instantly crystallized, and listeners could fully appreciate the cryptically eclectic influences from which Bowie had drawn. A legend lost, but enough art left over to remember him for a lifetime.

Approaching the end of the same year, Leonard Cohen announced his new record coupled with a headline-grabbing sentiment: “I am ready to die.” He backtracked, stating that he intended to live forever, but this sarcasm only gave credibility to his former statement. On October 21, he released You Want It Darker. Not three weeks later, he passed in his sleep. I had to wonder if his death would offer the same clarity when it came to his final work.

By the time he was in his twenties, Cohen was already an accomplished poet and novelist. By his thirties, he used these literary blueprints to craft music that seemed to be the work of a well-established artist. His first and most beloved album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, introduced the world to his deeply personal music. His poetry had at last found its true home in his gently droning baritone, floating alongside soft and simple strings and guitar. It was clear that Cohen was a writer first, and a musician second. The musical accompaniments did not obscure his messages, and his knack for storytelling shone vibrantly through his compositions.  A theme permeated this first work that would that would continue to color his pieces throughout a large part of his musical career: a sense of spiritual longing. Through his whimsically telling wordplay and characteristic Biblical allusions, Cohen gave his listeners a portrait of himself. His mind, though wise, was still young in its abstract understanding of life.

By his fifties, he had already cemented his place in folk music. His baritone, along with his sentiments, became calloused. He suffered from debilitating depression, and songwriting had become an arduous task. Through years of contemplation it seemed as though Cohen had abandoned his spiritual longing, leaving in its place a certain Calvinistic defeatism, a playfully perceptive pessimism. This new philosophy was enclosed within a warmth of cheap synth sounds, making his landmark record I’m Your Man a distinctively 80s project (post-disco, as Cohen half-jokingly described). The cover features a candid photo of Cohen wielding a banana, a veritable sign of a man who could no longer take his life seriously. It seems an apt response to the breakdown that it took to create the album. Much like the oft-covered
“Hallelujah,” many of these songs became staples in his discography. Most telling is that over half of the tracks were included on the Essential Leonard Cohen.

If these records were respectively the pursuit of his personal truth and the admittance of his subsequent failure, then You Want It Darker is his consolation prize. His final record is proof that he was never worse for wear in this pursuit. You Want It Darker is a collection of songs seemingly designed to reassure; Cohen seems comfortably aware of his mortality. As a result, darkness pervades even the sweetest melodies. The crystal-clear production gives Cohen’s final words an alarming urgency, and even in the ambience of the album’s most minimal compositions, it is impossible to miss. In this he communicates a truth simultaneously necessary and difficult to accept: we will all perish, it doesn’t matter if we are prepared. There is something uniquely poignant about the ease with which Cohen is able to accept this truth, and it is amplified by his proficiency in communicating human emotion through his art. The most remarkable example of this in the fruit of his seven-year endeavor, “Treaty,” could very well be the spiritual successor to “Hallelujah.”

Be it because of context or content, each sentiment here seems a synthesis of a lifetime of introspection and spiritual actualization. It is undeniable now that, like so many artists, Leonard Cohen is a martyr for those willing to extract the truth at the core of his art. In his many sufferings and constant introspection, he has left with us a body of work replete with secular wisdom. For this, we should be thankful. Humble to his core, Cohen once stated, “We’re in a world where there’s famine and hunger and people are dodging bullets and having their nails pulled out in dungeons, so it’s very hard for me to place any high value on the word that I do to write a song. Yeah, I work hard, but compared to what?”

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