Any fan of great songwriting had to be thrilled by the announcement that Leonard Cohen is scheduled to return with a new album in September titled Popular Problems. Considering that it’s just his 13th studio album in a recording career that began in 1967, it’s understandable why fans are salivating at the prospect of more deadpan missives on the chaos of love and life.
Of course, Cohen has filled those previous twelve albums with more than enough wit and wisdom to sustain us. Take, for just one wondrous example, “Ballad Of The Absent Mare,” a luscious, loping narrative from 1979’s Recent Songs. Very few people are privy to the inner workings of Cohen’s songwriting process, but his frequent collaborator Jennifer Warnes wrote about the song’s creation in an essay on her website.
“Leonard had found some old pictures somewhere,” Warnes recalled. “They were called The Ten Bulls, old Japanese woodcuts symbolizing the stages of a monk’s life on the road to enlightenment. These carvings pictured a boy and a bull, the boy losing the bull, the bull hiding, the boy realizing that the boy was nearby all along. There is a struggle, and finally the boy rides the bull into his little village. ‘I thought this would make a great cowboy song,’ he joked.”
It’s typical of Cohen that he muddies up the metaphor just enough to make us wonder about the object of the cowboy’s quest. After all, those who don’t know the allusion to the bulls might easily interpret the song as an endless cycle of recrimination and reunion that typifies a tumultuous romantic relationship. No one has ever mixed the spiritual and sexual as deftly as Cohen, and “Ballad Of The Absent Mare” is just another brilliant manifestation of this ability.
When we meet the cowboy, he’s mourning his missing mare, paralyzed by the “panic of loss.” He dreams of her presence, remembering a time when he held the position of power in their relationship, “when he was the lord.” If only he could see how close she was to him, practically within his grasp “a minute away,” but his own injured pride blinds him.
A songbird finally cuts through his self-imposed fog and alerts him of the mare’s presence at the junction where “the light and darkness divide.” Cohen’s poetry is at his most evocative in this section: “And the steam’s coming over/She’s huge and she’s shy/And she steps on the moon/When she paws at the sky.”
Even as they come back together, Cohen hints at the tendencies within each toward freedom and abandon that keep pulling them apart. Their ride off into the sunset is tempered by the realization that their union is fragile at best (“Who snaps it asunder the very next night.”) Maybe, the narrator muses, love is “like the smoke/Beyond all repair.”
Cohen then knocks down the fourth wall and reveals that this entire story has taken place within his head as he and his wife witness “That old silhouette/On the great western sky.” In that moment, he unites his old ideas of romance and transcendence and hints at the difficulty of lassoing either one. “Ballad Of The Absent Mare” is, as Leonard hoped it would be, a great cowboy song, one as vast and elusive as the horizon itself.