‘And I thank you for those items that you sent me
The monkey and the plywood violin’
The couplet quoted above is an example of the compelling cryptic writing of Leonard Cohen. He has been labelled "the poet laureate of pessimism", "the grocer of despair" and "the godfather of gloom" and his work called ‘music to slit your wrists by’
(Lisle T. d., 2004) (Ratcliff, 1990, p. 5). These judgements
are partly because of the monotone in which his songs are often delivered but
partly because of lines like ‘your love is some dust in an old man’s cough’ and
‘they chained you to your fingernails’. However, Cohen, listed as one of the
‘top ten great singers who can’t sing’ is sometimes quietly humorous, referring
to himself as having been ‘born with the gift of the golden voice’ (McCormick, 2009). His fictional
conversation with a deceased hero includes the line ‘Hank Williams hasn't answered yet’.
108 lyrics, recorded on 12 albums from 1967 to 2012, are sometimes regarded as belonging to the folk or rock tradition but are sufficiently diverse that the work does not fit into any genre other than that of popular music itself. The lyrics are popular with other singers and Cohen’s website lists 2756 covers, including numerous versions of ‘Bird on a Wire’, ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Suzanne’
(Jarkko Arjatsalo, 2014).
Leonard Cohen is a Canadian singer-songwriter who has released successful albums across the world over a period of more than 40 years. He was born in Montreal in 1934, and was a poet before he became known in the late 1960s as a writer of songs. His perfectionism about his writing is highlighted by a conversation with Bob Dylan, who said he wrote one of his songs in fifteen minutes, whilst Cohen admitted to two years for ‘Hallelujah’, although the real answer appears to be more than five years
(Simmons, 2012, p. 320).
Spirituality is an important referent in Cohen’s work, which uses Christian imagery such as ‘crucifix’ and ‘Joseph looking for a manger’. His Jewish heritage influenced his use of Holocaust themes in lyrics such as ‘Dance me to the end of love’ and ‘First we take Manhattan’
(Simmons, 2012, pp. 318, 340). Despite being ‘embedded in (Jewish)
religion’, Cohen also took an interest in Scientology, and in 1996 was ordained
a Buddhist monk, , saying that he finds it ‘deeply satisfying that .... the
Kaballah is remarkably parallel to that of ..... contemporary Zen’ (Simmons, 2012, pp. 74, 196, 390, 438).
In 2004, at the age of 70, when his career both as a writer and a performer might have been considered coming to an end, he discovered that his business manager had stolen up to 13 million dollars from his retirement fund and that the only financial option appeared to be touring again
(Simmons, 2012, pp. 427, 451). Cohen was reluctant
but a London promoter offered to pay the bills for rehearsals ‘as long as you
want,’ saying that if he decided not to tour, he wouldn’t owe anything (Simmons,
2012, p. 453).
Perfectionism was once more apparent as Cohen spent around 1 million dollars
before agreeing to start a tour (Simmons, 2012, p. 457). The first tour, a
world-wide success, ‘not only restored (his) funds, it improved them considerably’
and since then, there have been other tours and a 2012 album ‘Going Home’ (Simmons,
2012, p. 482).
Cohen has received many awards, including those from literary bodies, popular music institutions and the Canadian Government. In 1985 he received the Canadian Author's Association award for poetry and in 2011 he received the award for literature from the Prince of Asturias Awards, with the citation ‘Considered one of the most influential authors of our time, his poems and songs have beautifully explored the major issues of humanity in great depth’
(Canadian authors, 2014) (Fundacion principe de Asturias, 2014)
Cohen is well respected in the music industry and in 2010 was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, whose exclusive membership is described thus ‘Out of the tens of thousands of successful songwriters of our era, there are fewer than 400 inductees who make up the impressive roster enshrined in the Hall of Fame.’
(Songwriters Hall of Fame, 2014).
The Companion of the Order of Canada is that country’s highest civilian honour. Cohen’s citation includes the words: ‘Known for his striking imagery and evocative descriptions of the human condition, Leonard Cohen has the distinction of creating a body of work that has remained contemporary and significant through three decades of shifting musical and aesthetic tastes’, describing him as ‘a Canadian icon and a venerated dean of the pop culture movement’
(Leonard Cohen, C.C., G.O.C., B.A., LL.D., 2002)
Cohen has also written several volumes of poetry and the American Academy of poets states that ‘Cohen seamlessly re-institutes that ancient notion of the lyric as belonging to both verse and song.’
(Leonard Cohen, poet, novelist, musician, 2014)
1.4 Aims and research questions
The intention here is to make a small contribution to starting the task of carrying out methodical linguistic analysis of Cohen’s lyrics.
· What information about the linguistic features of Cohen’s lyrics is provided by keyword analysis?
· What information does keyword analysis provide about the portrayal of the first person narrator?
In the next chapter of this dissertation, I will briefly review the existing literature in the fields of stylistics, corpus stylistics and the analysis of the lyrics of popular music. Chapter 3 will describe the acquisition of data for the Cohen and comparison corpora and then describe the methodology for comparing them. The analysis sections of the dissertation will first describe the manual stylistic analysis of a small number of lyrics and then proceed to assess the keywords across the lyrics. These two analyses are complementary and there will be a description of the extent to which the two approaches support each others findings. The final chapter will contain a discussion of the results.