Leonard Cohen Was Operating On A Different Level

Album art for the 1979 album “Recent Songs”

It’s sad, yet somehow apropos, that the death of Leonard Cohen will be buried somewhat in the news cycle by the post-election tumult. After all, his music was largely unknown to the casual music fan. Some might have heard Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” (or even John Cale’s take of the song on Shrek), but most of the hauntingly eloquent work Cohen produced from the past half-century remains mostly obscure to the wider world.

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Which matters not a whit, because the impact his music had on those who knew and loved it is incalculable. It usually only takes hearing a few songs of Cohen’s before one can understand that he was operating largely on a different level. And it’s not just the literary background, although there’s that too. (Listen to the mercurial, mesmerizing flow of the words of “Alexandra Leaving” for a good example of how he brought those talents to bear in his music.) It’s the way he could make connections between love and sex and spirituality and politics and psychology and mortality that then seemed self-evident to us once he illuminated them in his lyrics.

But it’s more than that still. In David Remnick’s recent profile of Cohen in the New Yorker, the famously media-shy Bob Dylan came forth to praise the melodies of Leonard’s songs. I think even Cohen himself gave them short shrift for a while after his brilliant 1967 debut album Songs Of Leonard Cohen, making the next few releases seem impressive but somewhat cold. That’s why I think his collaboration with Phil Spector on 1977’s Death Of A Ladies Man, often derided by critics as bombastic, actually marked a positive turning point in his career, because thenceforth soulful, heartfelt hooks always grounded his brilliant insights.

And then there is that final trilogy of albums, forced on Cohen because of financial straits that were no fault of his own, yet now essential listening for a complete appreciation of his legacy. His low notes now well below Hell’s cellar, he sounds on these albums like an oracle roused from his cave, with a twinkle in his eye and wounds in his heart so long unhealed they’ve become his closest companions. On “Going Home,” a typically witty, moving entry from this era, he speaks of wanting to write “a love song/An anthem of forgiving/A manual for living/With defeat.” False modesty this, because you could fill four or five playlists with Cohen songs that fill those qualifications without having to repeat a track.

Speaking of false modesty, Cohen wrote in “Tower Of Song” about residing a hundred floors below Hank Williams in that exalted edifice. After this annus horribilis for music fans, that tower seems to be getting more and more crowded with legends gone too soon. But Leonard warned us way back on his very first release that loves and lives are fleeting, so it’s best to take it in stride:

“You know my love goes with you as your love stays with me
It’s just the way it changes, like the shoreline and the sea
But let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie
Your eyes are soft with sorrow
Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye”

Good advice. But for those of us who knew Leonard Cohen’s music well, composing ourselves may take a while.

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