As an analyst of the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, I was sceptical that the new album would really live up to its gloomy title. After all, I have spent the last few years closely examining the work of the ‘godfather of gloom’. I know that his lyrics contain miserable lines like ‘your love is some dust in an old man’s cough’ and ‘they chained you to your fingernails’. But I also know that there are lots of jokes, like ‘you’ve been faithful’ but there were ‘people you just had to meet without your clothes’ and ‘all my bad reviews’. Although Cohen has been described as one of the ‘top ten great singers who can’t sing’, and admits that the four notes he can sing have got lower with time, he still refers to himself (with a giggle at live concerts) as having been ‘born with the gift of the golden voice’.
When I listened to the album, I was shocked by the unremitting pessimism of the new lyrics. It is only two years since Cohen declared in ‘You got me singing’ that ‘I’d like to carry on’ but now he says he is traveling(sic) light and leaving the table.
The album is typical of Cohen in that he sings about personal relationships, spirituality and politics, with references to music and ageing. He continues his recent trend of writing more lyrics about spirituality. On this album, half of the lyrics are mainly about spiritual issues, with half about personal relationships, whilst over his career as a whole, around 80% of his lyrics have been mainly about relationships and only 12% about spirituality, although many more lyrics have contained spiritual references.
The spiritual lyrics contain none of the simple faith of ‘let it be your will’, but appear to be describing the end of the narrator’s faith with lines such as ‘if you are the dealer I am out of the game’ and it ‘sounded like the truth but it’s not the truth today’. ‘Steer your heart past the truth you believed in yesterday’ is followed by ‘the Mea Culpa which you’ve gradually forgot’. ‘Only one of us was real – and that was me’ is echoed in the defiant ‘tho’ there be a God or not’, describing a loss of faith in God, especially as the relationship is described in the past tense. ‘Its much too late to turn the other cheek’ sounds like a rejection of a basic tenet of Christianity, followed by a similar comment on both Christian and Jewish symbols in ‘the ruins of the altar’ and ‘the fables of Creation and the Fall’.
It is more typical for Cohen to be rejecting symbols of commerce, science and of earthly power, and on this album we have ‘the Mall’, the Palaces’ and ‘the Cosmic model’, as well as humanity who ‘die to make things cheap’. In ‘Treaty’, we hear a typical Cohen conflation of spirituality and politics. He wants to sign a treaty with you who ‘changed the water into wine’ but then he switches to the politico-military sphere with ‘I do not care who takes this bloody hill’.
The only convincing note of spiritual acceptance on the album is in the repeated ‘Hineni. I am ready, my Lord’, although ‘Lift this glass of blood, try to say the grace’ also suggests that the narrator is making a last attempt at faith.
Three of the four relationship lyrics describe the narrator either leaving a relationship or refusing to enter into it in the first place. In ‘On the Level’ the narrator walks away from an unwanted encounter, although we are not told why this is the case. ‘I’m old and I’ve had to settle for a different point of view’ can be interpreted as a reference to age and a decline in sexual desire and ability but Cohen has been making continual reference to his advancing years since 1967, when he described meeting Marianne ‘deep in the green lilac park’ – a notable metaphor for inexperienced youth. This lyric also contains contrasts – ‘I was dying to get back home and you were starting out’, ‘I said I best be moving on you said, we have all day’ - which reminded me of the conflicts in ‘Different Sides’ and ‘Slow’. It has two rare humorous lines in ‘My don’t was saying do’ and ‘a man like me don’t like to see temptation caving in’. ‘Now I’m living in this temple where they tell you what to do’ is reminiscent of the powerless narrator of ‘Tower of Song’ but has none of the humour contained there in ‘Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet’.
In ‘I’m leaving the table’ the narrator is walking away from his lover. Cohen has also been doing this since 1967 when he released the ultimate ‘its not you, its me’ putdown in ‘Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye’. In this case, he blames his advancing years with ‘I don’t need a lover, the wretched best is tame’.
‘Traveling light’ is another description of the end of a relationship, the narrator describing ‘somebody who has given up on the me and you’. This narrator is in control of his destiny in a way which is unusual for Cohen, as most of his narrators are at the mercy of events and in only a handful of lyrics is he able to take charge. He makes a typical to reference to music, this time combined with a reference to his age with ‘I used to play one mean guitar’. He does eventually suggest the possibility of the road leading ‘back to you’.
‘If I didn’t have your love’ is a love song but the focus is not on the love but on the desolation of losing that love. ‘If the sun would lose its light and we lived an endless night’ is as bleak as the classic 1971 lyrics ‘Diamonds in the Mine’, ‘Avalanche’ and ‘Last Year’s Man’.
Taking the album as a whole, this is an unfamiliar Cohen who appears to have lost not only his sense of humour but his faith in humanity, in redemption and in God.
There is, of course, one other explanation for this bleakness. That Cohen is providing his own reply to the accusations of gloom and despair. Could he be mocking us with the title? ‘You want to see what really dark is like? I can show you that. So far I have been writing comedy.’ And compared with this album, that is very true. My own hope is that this is not Cohen signing out and that we have yet to experience at least one more album with the optimism of ‘You got me singing’, in which he assures us he’d ‘like to carry on’.