Tag Archives: Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen. You Want it Darker.

 

 

 

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It is easy, and tempting, to see the eighty-two-year-old Leonard Cohen’s magnificent fourteenth album as a farewell. As is often the case with Cohen, though, it is not quite that simple. ‘You Want It Darker’ may seem to be the singer’s farewell to his life, his work, to us, but throughout the album the nature of his goodbye shifts, and we are never sure exactly what or who he is saying goodbye to. The key might lie in a strange case of repetition. Cohen, an artist renowned for spending years on his lyrics (he allegedly spent five years writing ‘Hallelujah’) has chosen to give us a repeated line and a repeated image in two of his songs. The line is about departure from a game and the image is about the extinguishing of a flame.

Here’s the line in the title song ‘You Want It Darker’ – If you are the dealer , I’m out of the gameIf you are the healer, I’m broken and lame. And here it is in ‘Leaving the Table’ – I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game

 Here’s the repeated image. In  the title song – You want it darker, We kill the flame  And in ‘Leaving the Table’ – I don’t need a lover, So blow out the flame

 It seems extraordinary that Cohen should do this and I think we can rule out carelessness or oversight as a possible reason. Why, then, are these lines and images repeated, and why might it be significant? ‘I’m out of the game’ is a pretty clear image of quitting, but quitting what, exactly? The first thing that comes to mind, obviously, is a game of cards – hence the dealer and hence the table. But othermetaphorcal games, other dealers and other tables are also suggested – the table at which you sit with a lover and the table at which you might sit with someone else and break bread and drink wine. So is it the game of life, the game of love, or is it the game of belief and faith? The same can be said of the ‘flame’. Is it the light of life, is it the hot flame of love and sexual desire or is it the illuminating flame of belief?

Those who know Leonard Cohen’s work will recognise the rich ambiguity of his lyrics, the psalm-like simplicity of the language.They will also be familiar with the depth of his voice. On ‘You Want It Darker’ both the voice and the language become deeper and more profound – it’s like someone talking from beyond, some ancient, wise prophet teasing and tantalising with simple yet gnomic utterances about love, life, faith and mortality.

Particularly puzzling is the ‘you’ of the title and the ‘you’ of the songs. All the songs, bar one, are addressed to ‘you’ but, as with the nature of the game and the flame, it is never quite clear who this ‘you’ is. It could be us, his audience, (making the title an interesting challenge – you want it darker, you’ve got it), it could be himself (‘you’ as the generalising pronoun standing for ‘I’), it could be God or it could be an unspecified love or lover. Whoever the ‘you’ is, though, there is always an issue, always an argument – mistrust, suspicion, struggle, betrayal. What Cohen is searching for is summed up in the title of one of the songs – ‘Treaty’. Whoever he is addressing – God, his lover, himself, us, faith – has let him down ( ‘I try but I don’t get high with you’) and he is hoping for peace, for reconciliation between ‘your love and mine’.

The one song that isn’t addressed to ‘you’ is about a ‘him’ and ends with the lines – I better hold my tongue, I better take my place, Lift this glass of blood, Try to say the grace

Biblical and religious imagery have never been far from Cohen’s songs but on ‘You Want It Darker’ they assume a whole new dimension, becoming absolutely central to the album’s power and effects. Cohen quarrels with God and Faith as if he quarrels with a lover and it is difficult to pin down his position with any precision. Does he believe? If so who or what does he believe in? Who is he talking to? Who or what does he love? Who is he blaming or accusing?  It’s like listening to the struggle of John Donne’s divine sonnets – Cohen’s heart is being given a good battering and so is the listener’s. And yet the effect is curiously uplifting. ‘You Want It Darker’ may be an intensely religious, spiritual experience posing, but not answering, the big questions, but it is soothing and pleasurable to listen to. Synagogue choirs, yearning strings, backing female singers accompany the deep, questioning voice – the overall effect offers the consolations of religious ritual.

 

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Boyhood, Hydra and Leonard Cohen

Watching Richard Linklater’s brilliant ‘Boyhood’ left me asking the impossible question posed in that old Fairport Convention song -“Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” The film shows a boy growing into a young man, but it does so by filming him and his family in real time. They all, literally, age before your eyes and the effect is mesmerising and totally involving. At the end, you are left contemplating  the ageing process, reflecting on, and questioning, the wisdom of the Jesuit saying “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”. It’s this principle which underpins  Michael Apted’s ’56 Up’, recently repeated on TV. Since its first instalment in 1964, this extraordinary documentary has traced the lives of a group of British children from a variety of backgrounds, from the age of seven, returning at seven-year intervals to take snapshots of their lives. Both the fictional, novelistic ‘Boyhood’ and  the factual, ‘real-life’ ‘Up’ series make you aware of time and ageing in powerful and moving ways.

I had been preparing to go to Hydra for some time ( see ‘My Long Weekends with Leonard Cohen’ – http://www.bernardokeeffe.com/?p=339) but I wasn’t prepared for the Boyhood/56Up moment when I put a couple of photos side by side. The first is of us on our first holiday together. The second, taken in the same place, is us on our return thirty one years later

 

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As for Leonard, we thought we should find his house, just to see where we might have stayed had he answered my wife’s letter.

 

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My Long Weekends with Leonard Cohen

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I have recently spent several long weekends with Leonard Cohen. Not in person, you understand, but even so I feel I now know him much better than I did. In the unlikely event that we were ever to get together for a real-life weekend (and time and circumstances seem to make this increasingly unlikely) I’m sure we’d get along like a house on fire (but more of his house later).

The first of these weekends was spent in the company of  ‘The Complete Studio Albums Collection’.

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When the box set arrived I announced to the world that I was going in to my room and that I ‘may be some time’. From the enthusiastic social media response (one RT and two likes) it seemed that most regarded this statement as mere acknowledgement of the size of the box set rather than a knowing reference to Oates walking to his death at The South Pole. To spend a weekend with ‘Laughing Len’ and his ‘music-to-slit-wrists-by’, I was suggesting, was to be thrown into some profound depression from which, like my room, I was unlikely to emerge.

How wrong I was. Listening to Cohen’s work chronologically (topping up the box set with ‘Old Ideas’) turned out to be a far from depressing experience. In much the same way that you feel purged after witnessing the suffering of a great tragedy, I finished the experience feeling strangely uplifted. OK, there are many songs that can’t be accused of looking on the bright side, but there’s also a lot of humour there, not all of it dark. In fact, I would suggest that a chronological Cohen – listen should be available to all on the NHS. It remains one of the great secular pilgrimages of our time.

The other long weekends with Leonard were spent in the company of Sylvie Simmons’s ‘I’m Your Man’.

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There are too many highlights to mention here but several stand out. I was intrigued by the revelation that in his early teens Cohen acquired a book called ’25 Lessons in Hypnotism – How to Become an Expert Operator’ – a telling indicator of the spell he was destined to cast over several future generations of listeners. That the first use he should put his skills to was getting the family maid to undress seems an equally telling indicator of the spell he was to cast over future generations of women. Simmons also sheds interesting light on ‘Hallelujah’ – it took Cohen five years to write ( he kept eighty alternative verses and discarded many more) and it has two different endings, one downbeat and one full of life-affirming bravado.

Of most interest, though, was the importance of the Greek island Hydra to Leonard Cohen. Hydra was the first place I went on holiday to with my wife, and it has always held a special place in our memories. That it should be so much associated with Cohen means that he, too, has held a special place in our lives. My wife, in fact, felt so close that she wrote personally to him (including a photo of us together on the island) saying that we had  a real soft spot for Hydra and would love to stay in his house any time he wasn’t there and it was free. For some strange reason Leonard failed to get back to her, but we’re heading back to Hydra soon and haven’t ruled out the possibility of bumping into him and enjoying a proper long weekend with Leonard Cohen in person.

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