At the beginning of the 2016 we mourned the passing of David Bowieand then marvelled that he had left us a piece of art even in his death. The video for Lazarus even had me wondering if backing into a wardrobe was a nod to CS Lewis’s Narnia.
The end of 2016 and we are mourning and marvelling again. This time it is Leonard Cohen.
It is of course too difficult to compare the two records these rock icons left. They are different of style. However when it comes to which is the best goodbye letter then there is no comparison. It is Cohen’ssubstance.
Now that should not be a surprise. David Bowie was an artist who protected himself, who gave little away. Leonard Cohen was a different soul. His life and poetry and songs were about a man searching deep into soul to work out how to live in the generation he found himself in.
There is no question that Cohen, who was more prolific in his last four years than he had been since the late 60s, knew this was his last album. He is “out of the game” (You Want it Darker), Leaving the Table and Travelling Light.
Cohen’s son, Adam, does a great job with the production. It seems his dad was not too mobile at the end and they recorded in his front room. He gets wonderful performance from his dad’s near holy whisper. Arrangements was sparse but the grace notes more successfully placed than on Old Ideas and Popular Problems. The humour and solemnity come through. The violins gave it a sadness whereas the Gospel harmonies in near Jewish style give it the mark of the sacred.
That blend of Christian Gospel and Jewish sounds in the female backing vocals is musically symbolic of how Cohen has held those two faiths together for most of his career. Jesus appeared early, in the song Suzanne, and has kept popping up for 40 years. Add to that his time in a Zen Buddhist monastery for some years and Cohen is interfaith in one pilgrimage. For me, unapologetically Christian, I am very comfortable with Cohen’s spiritual aim and ambition.
Just a couple of examples of his depth charges here that ripple across my soul:
“I struggled with some demons
They were middle-class and tame”
(You Want It Darker)
“They whisper still, the injured stones,
the blunted mountains weep
As he died to make men holy,
let us die to make things cheap”
(Steer Your Way)
A lazy listen to You Want It Darker might suggest that Cohen lost a lot of his faith, that he ended with more questions than answers. There is a wonderful 10 minute unpacking of the record by Rabbi Jonathan Sachs that throw light on what Cohen is doing. Sachs suggests that this like the work of Job and also talks us through the story of Abraham and Isaac which of course Cohen has previously written an entire song about (watch Jonathan Sachs on Cohen here).
A studied look at all of Leonard Cohen work reveals a man who didn’t write a pop song in 15 minutes. Much of his work was after hours, days, months even, spent wrestling with Scripture and the spiritual implications. This is what makes his passing a much greater loss than David Bowie or anyone of the huge number of rock stars we lost in 2016. I found myself mourning Leonard Cohen’s passing with more of a subjective heart. he was like a spiritual companion to me, opening up my soul with lyrics of sacred potency.
For me these are the songs of a soul ready to leave, having one last gasp Psalmic rage with God about the state of there world. Indeed that is where the story of Abraham and Isaac comes in. In the title track Cohen uses the Hebrew, “Hineni, Hineni/I’m ready, my Lord” that Abraham states to God. Hineni, indeed!