Every once in a while, it’s good to get an update on the state of the world from someone with a point of view a bit more enlightened than some periodical or the evening news. Leonard Cohen delivered just such an update on his 1988 classic “Everybody Knows,” a song that was thrillingly comprehensive in its overview then and somehow remains chillingly accurate now about the threats facing this planet and the foibles of the poor fools who inhabit it.
Cohen is not alone in deserving credit for this cynical masterpiece. He wrote the lyrics and handed them off to his former backing singer Sharon Robinson in the first of what would become many songwriting collaborations between the pair. Speaking to Uncut magazine, Robinson remembered the approach she took once she got a hold of the Canadian Bard’s words. “”It’s a protest song, so Leonard wanted something tough,” she said. “I’d bring home verses, and go to the grand piano in my living room, as his lyrics require that purity of melody.”
The song was included on an album (I’m Your Man) which found Cohen delving deeply into a synthesizer-based sound. The synths on “Everybody Knows” lurch forward into the abyss while Cohen’s voice booms forth with its warnings as if it belonged to an ancient oracle. Some flashy Spanish guitar adds just the right counterpoint to the arrangement, keeping the music from getting too somber.
Cohen doesn’t waste any time with tact or restraint, setting the tone in his opening lines: “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded/Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed/Everybody knows that the war is over/Everybody knows the good guys lost.” This generalized overview soon gives way to more specific concerns, as the relentless lyrics touch on greed, racism, and drugs. One verse seems to specifically reference the AIDS crisis, then at its height, as Cohen sings of a coming plague, meters to count sexual partners, and how “the naked man and woman/Are just a shining artifact of the past.”
Yet he also brings things down to a personal level with a verse about infidelity between two lovers. “Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful/Ah, give or take a night or two,” he sings. And it wouldn’t be a Cohen song if he didn’t bring spiritual concerns into it, with references to Calvary (juxtaposed ironically with Malibu beaches) and the Sacred Heart. Whether that heart belongs to Jesus or Leonard is never revealed, but, at song’s end, it’s poised to explode all over the whole sordid scene.
Cohen also makes room for flashes of mischievous wit, like when he implies that the death of a parent and the death of a dog are equally disturbing. Running through this litany of horrors is a subtle criticism of those who ignore it all in favor of their own self-interested pursuits: “Everybody’s talking to their pockets/Everybody wants a box of chocolates/And a long-stemmed rose.”
The repetition of the title phrase suggests that Cohen has not been blessed with some unique power of perception, but that these truths should be evident to anyone who walks through the world with even an ounce of coherence. “Everybody Knows” may not deliver news on the state of the world that anyone would want to hear, but, thanks to Cohen’s eloquent words and seductive delivery, you never tire of listening to it.