Music critics reminisced this week on the work of one of the great singer-songwriters of our time, 82-year-old Canadian Leonard Cohen. Cohen passed away at his home in Los Angeles last week, after a battle with cancer.
The media obituaries were suffused with mournful nostalgia – Cohen was for many a kindred spirit who gave words to their melancholy romanticism. And for sure, songs like Cohen’s “Hallelujah” are a Cupid’s arrow to the heart of a lovesick soul.
While it’s customary at these moments to reflect on what an artist meant to us, it’s also worth taking a second look at the themes of the music of the “High-priest of pathos”. Cohen is, after all, one of the quintessential late 20th century singer-songwriters, and he offers insight into the way a generation past, and even perhaps the current generation, see love and romance.
What we see in Cohen’s music is a complex picture of pure love and thinly veiled sensuality, or, if you will, romance and eroticism. Much of this is set against the backdrop of a sentimental religiosity. (Cohen describe himself a “Sabbath-observant Jew”).
Cohen’s lyrics have all the typically themes of brooding love poetry – unrequited affection, forbidden love, seduction, and, of course, betrayal.
“Hallelujah” charts the whole spectrum of romantic experience, and what’s more, builds on a number of Biblical tropes. King David, Samson and even the “holy dove” channel Cohen’s lovesick musings.
As if this were not dramatic enough, Cohen intermingled chivalry into the tale – no less than a “victory march” and “marble arch” adorn what is perhaps one of the most memorable cadences in the history of modern romantic music.
But therein is a perennial aesthetic tension – Cohen, like so many other musicians after him, runs eroticism and pure love together. And he does it so well that you’re almost tempted to forget about any dubious subject matter underpinning the lyrics.
Here’s one example: in the song “Suzanne”, Cohen sings about the gorgeous Suzanne Verdal, the partner of Cohen’s friend, renowned Canadian sculptor Armand Vaillancourt.
Cohen paints lyrical picture of a romantic night on the river with his forbidden lover. Amidst the dreamy imagery, Cohen sings: “you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind”.
Not to get all prudish, but remember that he’s is singing about his friend’s partner (or, at least, that’s how the narrative is constructed). After hearing this one, Vaillancourt probably wanted to hurl a block of marble at Cohen!
Or take “I’m your Man”, a far less subtle ballad. Cohen’s lyrics are so dripping with innuendo that they make contemporary pop look like something from the Victorian-era. “If you want a doctor, I’ll examine every inch of you”, Cohen sings.
I mean, come on! And as if the carnal-to-the-point-of-smouldering lyrics weren’t enough, it’s all put to fuzzy synths and slinky reggae rhythms. Coming from anyone else this would be nothing short of sleaze pop.
But yes, it’s Leonard Cohen. And he’s a poet, and his lyrics are brilliant, and many of his songs are just innocent love ballads. For sure, we should celebrate his life.
He was, after all, a man who battled depression, and nevertheless had a stellar musical career. Indeed, watching some of his live performances, it seems as if music were a form of catharsis for him.
Blogger Karl Nerenberg said of Cohen’s music, ”there is a certain ineffable ‘rightness’ — to borrow a phrase Leonard Bernstein used to describe Beethoven’s music — to Cohen’s musical creations”. And this is true, save for the unbridled and at times creepy eroticism.
Vale Leonard Cohen; the man whose music was sublime. Well, most of it.
Xavier Symons is a research associate with the Institute for Ethics and Society at the University of Notre Dame, Australia.