There are so many meaningful reasons for why we listen to music: to keep us company on our daily walks, to reminisce on a memory contained in the sound, to sing and connect with our friends. But one of the most profound moments is when we are inescapably sad about our lives or life itself, and the song’s lyrics articulate precisely what you are feeling. As Alan Bennett wrote about reading, “it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours”.
For those prone to the melancholic or morbid, terrified by the amount of suffering in the world, Leonard Cohen’s music is like an older, wiser friend saying, “me too”. The dramatic, Biblical landscape of his discography contains what I see as his personal philosophy: Life is full of human darkness, but we must exalt in it and bring the little light that we can.
Cohen was raised in a Jewish family, in 1930s Montreal. Despite the legacy of his Rabbi grandfather and their descendance from the Biblical priest Aaron, it was song writing and poetry that formed his spiritual path. Throughout his life, he was interested in many faiths and ideas, but felt most at home in the practises of Judaism and Buddhism – which he pursued in part to aid his life-long depression.
By the time his last songs and their messages were released, three years after his death at age eighty-two, his songs presented a spiritual and mental journey which showed the developments within his philosophy of life.
His first released song is a combination of platonic and spiritual admiration, through its presentation of his friend Suzanne and Jesus Christ. Suzanne becomes an emblem for love and goodness in the world – she shows everybody how to separate life’s goodness, “the flowers”, from life’s badness, “the garbage”. Cohen pairs his showing of the profoundness within human connection, with a focus on the loneliness and brokenness of the human figure of Jesus. Cohen sets out the key philosophical idea of his discography: to be human is to be flawed and broken. He shows how even the son of God experiences existential “loneliness”, watching mankind from his “wooden tower” and like us, being “broken” “long before” reaching heaven.
The song made famous by the strange combination of Jeff Buckley, Shrek and The X Factor, is arguably one of the most profound, anglophonic songs. The verses recognise the darknesses and painful failures of sexual and spiritual life, and the chorus calls on us to exalt in this, to celebrate the fact that we have life at all.
He invokes the Biblical stories of King David and Bathsheba, and Samson and Delilah, to dramatize how man is broken by sexual desire. The surrender and pain of the “Hallelujah” (meaning “to praise God”) is “drawn” from the “lips” of the male figure, who has lost his power -his “throne” and his “hair”. In later verses, Cohen uses battle imagery to describe the experience of love – it isn’t a triumphant “victory march” and he only knows how to “shoot” at his lover. Yet, he calls on the listener to value this “cold and broken Hallelujah” – to praise love and life.
The song also has a strong spiritual interpretation; the original third and fourth verses put forward his philosophical message of praising the holiness and divine light of life. He writes that there is a divinity, a “blaze of light in every word”, whether it is a “holy” or “broken” moment of life. He also proclaims that “even though it all went wrong” he’ll “stand before the lord…with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah” – reinforcing his message that he will praise his God despite all the difficulty he has experienced and caused in life. Similarly in the prayer-like songs If It Be Your Will and Come Healing, Cohen calls to God as his source of hope during the despair of life.
Like Hallelujah, Anthem contains the core of Leonard Cohen’s philosophy. He starts the song by acknowledging the darknesses that are innate to the make-up of the world: “The wars” that “will be fought again” and the “holy dove” of peace who “will” be “caught again”. His imperative assurance of the horrors of life is repeated in his song Everybody Knows, where he emphasises that war, wealth inequality and slavery will always exist because of the evil within human nature. Or In My Secret Life, where he bluntly says that “nobody cares” if the people written about in the newspaper “live or die”.
Although he evokes the despair-inducing reality of the world, he calls on those who can, to strive for goodness – even though we cannot do any action perfectly: “there is a crack”, a mistake, in “everything”. He presents the belief that this imperfection makes space for the “light” of our repentance and resurrection to “get in”.
You Want It Darker: 2016
In one of the final songs released before his death, Cohen presents the same message that the darkness is integral to the nature of life. He sums it up neatly in the line, “there’s a lover in the story, but the story’s still the same” – that the existence of love that he partly praised, is ineffective against inevitable sufferings. He evokes images of candles burning for Holocaust victims, the betrayal of “the help that never came”.
However, Cohen suggests no solution this time, instead calling in Hebrew “Hineni, I’m ready my lord” and “Let me out of the game” – using the language of his ancestral tradition to call for death. This undermines the cultural view of the all-knowing elder, suggesting that he is leaving life as uncomfortable as when he first realised what its miseries were.
Furthermore, his final released song Listen to the Hummingbird calls on the audience to listen to nature (“the hummingbird” and “the butterfly”) and the “mind of God”, instead of him. As Footman analyses, Cohen’s ultimate message is a “call to the individual”, to learn their own Hallelujah and look for the truth in the world.
Thus, his lyrical philosophy of the holy and the broken serves as a time capsule of his spiritual quest for truth. It shows that you are not alone in your horror at the darkness of the world or times of despair and depression. And though he characteristically switches between utter despair and the hope that we can bring our imperfect light, it is through the “cracks” within this philosophy, that “the light gets in”.
Image by Lucas Mota