Friday, November 11, 2016
Stygian soul: Goodbye, Leonard Cohen
As a die-hard adolescent metalhead always searching out the next musical extreme, I'd occasionally been frightened by music before I heard Songs of Leonard Cohen (my first glimpse of this, for example). But Songs is the first album I remember having to turn off because it creeped me out so much. I believe the song that did it was "Teachers":
Morning came and then came noon
Dinnertime —a scalpel blade lay beside my silver spoon
Some girls wander by mistake
Into the mess that scalpels make
Are you the teachers of my heart?
We teach old hearts to break
But I kept returning, willingly, into that dark dimension. I'd learned "singer-songwriter" music backward, first coming to indie-rock-affiliated bards like Will Oldham and then gradually working my way toward the true grandaddies. Dylan was an easy habit to develop, the appeal obvious and cocky and blithe. With Cohen, there was something heavier, slower, more sinister, more ancient. He had a knack for seeing visions, and for implanting them in your head, that in my opinion is unmatched by any other songwriter.
"Stranger Song," one of the best, a chilling portrait of the ultimate hustler who might just be nearing the end of the line:
You've seen that man before
His golden arm dispatching cards
But now it's rusted from the elbow to the finger
And he wants to trade the game he plays for shelter
Yes, he wants to trade the game he knows for shelter
And while he talks his dreams to sleep
You notice there's a highway
That is curling up like smoke above his shoulder
Yes, it's curling just like smoke above his shoulder
Songs From a Room stunned me, especially the stark "Story of Isaac," but when I got ahold of Songs of Love and Hate, it stopped me cold. I sensed that at that point, Cohen's work had gone beyond mere brooding and entered the realm of actual depravity. I wanted to live within, say, "Avalanche" (more on that that here), but I simply could not bear to listen to a song like "Dress Rehearsal Rag" more than once. Even his visage on the album cover made me shudder.
And what I knew of the later work — "Everybody Knows," for example — turned me off. As a fan who treasured the hushed, archaic sound of those early records, it bummed me out that he seemed to be surrendering to a kind of '80s-ized caricature of himself.
But of course as I grew up, and eventually saw him perform an exquisite concert on his now-legendary 2009 comeback tour, full of old-school gentlemanly showmanship, I came to see that Leonard Cohen's world was much broader than I'd thought. I still hear "Dress Rehearsal Rag" as a profoundly fucked-up song, but I can embrace the strung-out comedy of something like "Diamonds in the Mine" (or the taunting, sleazy playfulness of "Is This What You Wanted?") more readily, and hear how Cohen's poet-out-of-time quality can coexist beautifully with his reality as a witty pop songwriter living in the modern world.
David Bowie is not an artist I have yet connected with on a deep level, so the idea of Blackstar-as-final-statement didn't hit home for me as it did for some. But with Cohen, the feeling of finality and summation of his new album You Want It Darker (all captured brilliantly in this recent New Yorker profile) sprawled out before me, feeling so heavy and also in some way so light. Whatever this is, some sort of stygian soul music, it must set a new record for end-of-life badassery:
That seen-(and endured)-it-all voice — an emanation, really. Grave and prophetic but also sly and fallible. A holy man rife with earthly flaws. In all his complexity, one of the greatest poets I know. Thank you, Leonard Cohen for opening up your infinite worlds, for revealing your layered, indelible imagery and, yes, very often, for scaring the living shit out of me.
*Sylvie Simmons' I'm Your Man is as good a musician biography as I've read.