Leonard Cohen – the Great Communicator of Human Emotion and All its Contradictions

IN AN INTERVIEW with the New Yorker last October, Leonard Cohen said he was ‘ready to die’. It seems already that this ominous statement will serve as the basis with which the musical press defines his attitude towards his final days. Indeed, it fits in with much of our preconceptions on Cohen’s character; an almost mythical, sage-like figure accepting and understanding of his fate. Perhaps, it’s nicer to believe this image, it lets us see Cohen as an omniscient being, as someone who understood the secrets of human existence that rest of us could only guess at.

However, Cohen, neither as an individual or a musician, was that simple. What little we know of his biography shows a figure of many faiths, who managed to become disillusioned in some way or the other with them all. He later clarified the New Yorker statement, explaining that he has ‘always been into self-dramatization’, adding ‘I intend to live forever’. In these two statements lies the true genius of Cohen. He could understand and articulate the ironic contradictions that make up the core of human emotion and existence. For aren’t we all into self-dramatization? Don’t we all want both a clean end and an assurance of a continued existence?

This interest in the contradictions can be seen at their most obvious in ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’’s reprieve, where Cohen sings ‘I need you, I don’t need you/ I need you, I don’t need you’. It’s heart-breaking to hear, particularly with Cohen’s cracked delivery, because it is the kind of struggle we have all experienced; the struggle between moving on to a new and more promising future and letting go of an idealised past that can’t help pull at you. To steal from Dorian Lynskey’s fantastic piece on The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/leonard-cohen-he-knew-things-about-life-and-if-you-listened-you-could-learn), ‘Cohen felt as lost as anybody. What gave his work its uncommon gravitas wasn’t that he knew the answers but that he never stopped looking’.

However, to me, Cohen is not interested in finding the answers Lynskey mentions, even if he never stopped looking for them. Instead, he looked to celebrate the journey in the search. Cohen’s body of work is huge and to make broad proclamations on it is potentially dangerous, but certainly much of it looks to depict the journey of understanding the self and its relationships with the others as something aesthetically and spiritually beautiful. Just take Cohen’s most well-known song – and deservedly so, it’s a master-piece – ‘Hallelujah’. It is an unapologetic and uncompromising celebration of life and all the little defeats that come with it. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to proclaim hallelujah is an exclamation ‘uttered in worship… as an expression of rejoicing’. Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is a worshipping and a rejoicing of life. Life can be ‘holy or broken’ but still it is life, still it is worthy of celebration. Resolutely, as the song closes, Cohen declares ‘even though it all went wrong/ I’ll stand before the Lord of Song/ With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah’. Cohen the musician has always held the position of the elder-statesman. When his debut album, 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen, was released he was already thirty-three. His persona was of a man who had been round the block a few times, so to speak. Here, he harnesses that persona. ‘I have suffered’ he seems to say, ‘but it is a worthy sacrifice in return for life’.

However, as my title puts forward, Cohen is a master of contradiction as much he is a master of emotion. His last album, You Want It Darker, is arguably his best and the title track seems to be communicating directly with ‘Hallelujah’. The two have a similar, chant-like chorus and are filled with religious imagery. Musically, ‘You Want It Darker’ is almost a minor-key version of ‘Hallelujah’ – the chord progressions are strikingly similar, particularly the transition between the root major and minors (whereas ‘Hallelujah’ begins on the major and falls to the minor, ‘You Want It Darker’ progresses from the minor to the major). This allows ‘You Want It Darker’ to almost become a twisted variant of ‘Hallelujah’, giving it the darkness the ambiguous ‘you’ demands. It is not a celebration life but an attack on the God that created it. With phrases like ‘A million candles burning for the help that never came’ and ‘if thine is the glory then mine must be the shame’, Cohen’s takes the language of God and uses it against him. This comes to a head in the chorus, which again is almost identical in structure to ‘Hallelujah’, where Cohen declares ‘hineni, hineni’ – which translates from Hebrew to ‘I am here’ – before declaring ‘I’m ready, my Lord’ in a sarcastic and disdainful tone – ‘God can judge me but I shall also judge him’, Cohen seems to say.

While ‘You Want It Darker’ comes thirty-two years after the release of ‘Hallelujah’, it would be wrong to assume that Cohen has simply changed his view of the nature of existence and spirituality from an affirming one to a negative one. Life is full of ambiguities and questions that cannot be answered. The genius of Cohen is that he acknowledges and gives voice to all the different pulls and emotions that we fill. He understands both the unending joy and the eternal existential depression that comes with living in the modern world. He doesn’t have the nerve to pretend to know the solutions to how we overcome or understand such issues, but he does believe in the cathartic importance of giving voice to them. That, as much as anything else, is Leonard Cohen’s legacy.