Leonard Cohen

Columbia CK 53226

Leonard Cohen is one of the few survivors from the great singer-songwriter scare of the late 1960s who can still be counted on to create fresh and provocative work. On purely musical terms he’s remained relevant in ways many of his folkie fans would probably never have anticipated: the melancholy acoustic guitar patterns and angelic female choruses of his early work have given way to strident, aggressively danceable synth productions of considerable texture and complexity. Meanwhile his voice has receded into a hoarse whisper like that of a prophet whose larynx has been rubbed raw from screaming in the wilderness.

The Future, his first CD in nearly five years, reaffirms Cohen’s status as a major figure in modern pop. On it he demonstrates a refreshing refusal to rest on past merits or formulas: his lyric vision continues to grow in impact and sophistication.

Cohen is virtually the only songwriter mainstream critics of the 60s felt comfortable calling a poet without adding a qualifier like “folk” or “rock.” In 1956, barely out of his teens, he published his first volume of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies. He had three more books of poetry and two novels to his credit when he recorded his debut LP, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967. He makes little distinction between his literary and musical works: some of his most trenchant songs–“The Master Song,” “Avalanche,” “Death of a Ladies’ Man,” among others–were published as poems before he recorded them.

Cohen has managed to avoid the deadly solipsism that plagued many singer-songwriters (and is still evident in the work of such latter-day aspirants as the Indigo Girls). From the beginning, his poetry and lyrics have suggested that the tribulations and decay that wrack what he calls “the inner country” of the psyche are analogous to–and on some unnamed but vital level intertwined with–a greater spiritual malady that threatens the social order. “Stories of the Street,” an overlooked gem from Cohen’s first album, found the poet leaning out his hotel window with “one hand on my suicide, one hand on the rose.” He contemplated a human condition as fractured and frightened as his own soul: “The age of lust is giving birth / And both the parents ask the nurse / To tell them fairy tales / On both sides of the glass / And now the infant with his cord / Is hauled in like a kite / One eye filled with blueprints / One eye filled with night.”

Since then Cohen’s social vision has become bleaker and more intensely drawn. He fills his commentary with vivid snapshots of war and upheaval, often with strong pacifist and even revolutionary implications. In “The Old Revolution” (on his second LP, Songs From a Room), “even damnation is poisoned with rainbows” as “All the brave young men / They are waiting to see a signal / Which some killer will be lighting for pay.” An entry in The Energy of Slaves, a 1972 volume of untitled poems, warns the powers that be: “Any system you contrive / Without us / Will be brought down.”

But in pronouncements like that it’s difficult to tell where Cohen’s worldview ends and his irony begins. Although he was embraced as a kind of existential radical warrior by the 60s-era counterculture, he has long had an obsessive fascination with totalitarian control. One of his early books of poetry is entitled Flowers for Hitler, and in The Favorite Game, his first novel, Cohen’s youthful Jewish protagonists play Nazi torture games where they take turns stripping naked and whipping one another with red string, fantasizing about delivering fuhrerlike speeches and inciting crowds to violence through mass hypnotism.

In interviews Cohen has waxed nostalgic about his childhood love for the military. His father, a decorated World War I veteran, wanted to send him to a military academy; had his father lived, Cohen has suggested, he himself might have gone on to become a career man in the Canadian army. He immerses himself in the drill-like discipline it takes to oversee a musical tour, and he once named his touring band “The Army.”

Probably the most enigmatic element of Cohen’s work has been his relationship with women. On the one hand, his vision of sexuality often seems sacramental. A poem in his 1972 volume The Energy of Slaves proclaims that “One man free to love his minute / In the realms of flesh and sun / Breaks down more pain than ages / Of humane law or lawyers can.” So powerful is this healing force that the poet will “let politics go hang” and “speak for love alone.”

Cohen’s early musical persona–that of a sad-eyed traveler seeking sanctuary and salvation in various beds along the way–made him a hero among free-love advocates in the 60s. In retrospect, though, it’s somewhat surprising that it didn’t earn him more enmity from feminists. Some of his most beautifully crafted works romanticize a love-’em-and-leave-’em ethic that women of the 60s were already challenging as sexist and exploitative. Cohen has gotten away with it, partly because of his status as a legitimate poet, but also because even when he’s loving ’em and leaving ’em he uses such tender and eloquent terms that it’s almost impossible not to be seduced: “Sweeping up the jokers that he left behind / You find he did not leave you very much, not even laughter / Like any dealer he was watching for the card / That is so high and wild he’ll never need to deal another / He was just some Joseph looking for a manger” (“The Stranger Song,” Songs of Leonard Cohen).

Just as seductive, perhaps, but even more problematic when viewed from a longer perspective has been Cohen’s penchant for putting women on pedestals. He even grovels and begs before them in songs like “Our Lady of Solitude” on 1979’s Recent Songs (“She is the vessel of the whole wide world / Mistress, O mistress of us all”) and “Light as the Breeze” on The Future (“She stands before you naked / You can see it, you can taste it . . . / It don’t matter how you worship / As long as you’re down on your knees”). Cohen has sometimes used this cravenness in the presence of feminine beauty to excuse, or at least plead a case for, romantic indiscretion. In the title song on I’m Your Man he admits, “I’ve been running through these promises to you that I made and I could not keep.” Then he declares, “I’d crawl to you baby and I’d fall at your feet / And I’d howl at your beauty like a dog in heat / And I’d claw at your heart. And I’d tear at your sheet / I’d say please, please, I’m your man.”

Such expressions of adoration, which leave women little room to be anything but infatuation objects, can easily cross the line into resentment or misogyny. “She cannot be tamed by conversation,” Cohen writes in The Energy of Slaves. “Absence is the only weapon / Against the supreme arsenal of her body / She reserves a special contempt / For the slaves of beauty.”

Often betrayal, even cruelty, is portrayed as the inevitable consequence of love: “Love is a fire / It burns everyone / It disfigures everyone / It is the world’s excuse / For being ugly.” Although it’s usually the men in his tales who do the betraying (another poem begins, “There are no traitors among women”), he seldom chides them. In fact when a man remains faithful for any length of time Cohen takes it as a major accomplishment: “The years have gone by / I’ve lost my pride . . . / And I have not gone outside,” he brags in the song “I Tried to Leave You,” on 1973’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony. Usually his protagonists resume their sexual adventuring with either a flip remark (“It was half my fault and half the atmosphere”) or a tormented confession (“Like a baby stillborn / Like a beast with his horn / I have torn everyone who reached out for me / But I swear by this song / And by all that I have done wrong / I will try to make it all up to thee”). Such wailing may bring atonement but one senses that it probably doesn’t signal any real change in attitude or behavior–passion giveth, passion taketh away.

Cohen continues to insist that the desire that drives men and women obsessively into each other’s arms is “the divine scheme,” as he put it in a filmed interview in the early 1980s. Here’s where his twin obsessions–the heroic mythos of the soldier and the erotic mythos of salvation through sexual grace–come together. Cohen’s questing lovers are partisans on a holy mission, surrendering to desire and its torments as a soldier surrenders himself to his duty. In “The Traitor” on Recent Songs, the distinction between erotic and military imagery virtually disappears: “I lingered on her thighs a fatal moment / I kissed her lips as though I thirsted still / My falsity it stung me like a hornet / The poison sank and it paralyzed my will / I could not move to warn all the younger soldiers / That they had been deserted from above / So on battlefields from here to Barcelona / I’m listed with the enemies of love.”

“When you give love, you take a wound,” Cohen said in a 1988 interview. “If you give full love, of course, you die. To love, something in the ego has to die, has to surrender anyway, and with that surrender a wound is taken.” And by implication a wound is often given as well.

On The Future Cohen again immerses himself in the persona of a seeker–wounded, vengeful, visionary, sometimes cruel, obsessed with beauty and salvation–adrift in a world rife with seductive pleasures and rent with upheaval. Although the sacred and morally ambiguous mission of erotic pursuit still preoccupies him, he concentrates more than ever on global themes: of the three tunes on The Future that could be classified as love songs Cohen wrote only one, “Light as the Breeze.”

Cohen has long fancied himself an interpreter, and results have ranged from the exquisite (“The Partisan” on Songs From a Room) to the excruciating (“The Lost Canadian [Un Canadien Errant]” on Recent Songs). His efforts on The Future fall somewhere in between. “Be for Real,” by soul singer-composer Frederick Knight, is a tender R & B ballad, and Cohen’s atonal voice and wooden phrasing don’t particularly lend themselves to this pop-soul arrangement. But although his voice sounds shredded, he manages to croon it, and his breathy intonations of “baby” on the refrain are surprisingly sexy. But “Always,” the Irving Berlin chestnut, is another matter: Cohen delivers it in a lugubrious lounge-lizard moan, complete with a spoken intro that sounds like Barry White revved down to 16 RPM. It’s difficult to tell whether Cohen’s tongue is in his cheek on this one, but either way it’s one of his most surreal tracks ever.

Cohen is at his strongest on this disc when he’s tackling larger issues. The title song is the starkest nightmare of societal breakdown he’s ever committed to record. Over a propulsive minor-key synth track, Cohen brings forth his predictions of doom and destruction in a ragged whisper that occasionally erupts into a hoarse croak–he sounds like an Old Testament prophet in the throes of a manic episode: “There’ll be the breaking of the ancient western code / Your private life will suddenly explode / There’ll be phantoms / There’ll be fires on the road . . . / Things are going to slide in all directions / Won’t be nothing / Nothing you can measure anymore / The blizzard of the world / Has crossed the threshold / And it’s overturned the order of the soul . . . / Get ready for the future / It is murder.”

Cohen’s ambiguity about authoritarianism reasserts itself on “The Future” with new ferocity: “Give me back my broken night / My mirrored room, my secret life / It’s lonely here, there’s no one left to torture / Give me absolute control / Over every living soul / Lie beside me baby / That’s an order . . . / Give me back the Berlin Wall / Give me Stalin and St. Paul.”

But most striking is his apparent indictment of abortion as a symptom of social decay: “Destroy another fetus now / We don’t like children anyhow / I’ve seen the future, baby: / It is murder.” Cohen has hinted at such sentiments before. In “Diamonds in the Mine,” on Songs of Love and Hate, he bitterly mocked “the only man of energy, the revolution’s pride,” who “trained a hundred women just to kill an unborn child.” Even his earlier “Story of Isaac” (“You who build these altars now / To sacrifice these children / You must not do it anymore”), usually considered an antiwar song, could be interpreted as antiabortion. In live performance Cohen used to dedicate it those who’d “sacrifice one generation on behalf of another.” Once again his insistence on remaining ideologically ambiguous marks him as a courageous poet–and, as I’m sure some listeners will feel, a dangerous loose cannon.

His imagery on The Future takes on a more surreal tinge in “Closing Time.” As fiddles saw away behind him with a rollicking, claustrophobic dissonance, Cohen serves up a hallucinatory slice of life from some purgatorial roadhouse where a carnival for lost souls is in full swing: “All the women tear their blouses off / The men they dance on the polka-dots / And it’s partner found and partner lost / And it’s hell to pay when the fiddler stops . . . / I raise my glass to the Awful Truth / Which you can’t reveal to the Ears of Youth / Except to say it isn’t worth a dime / And the whole damn place goes crazy twice / And it’s once for the Devil and once for Christ.” In the background a female chorus chants “closing time” like a band of taunting angels.

In the midst of all this decadence and darkness, Cohen ignites an astonishing light of hope with “Democracy.” Set to a martial beat and tinged with his characteristic deadpan irreverence–“It’s coming from the silence / On the dock of the bay / From the brave, the bold, the battered heart of Chevrolet”–the song is a testament to the coming of a political millennium the likes of which Cohen has seldom dared to envision: “It’s coming to America first / The cradle of the best and of the worst / It’s here they got the range / And the machinery for change / And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.” Cohen seems to have reconsidered his earlier doubts about the healing potential of social change, as well as reconsidering his longstanding faith in the transforming power of visionary contemplation (in “The Traitor” he declared that “The dreamers ride against the men of action / Oh see the men of action falling back”). This time around he’s adamant that dreaming and believing aren’t enough. “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.,” he assures us, but first “the heart has got to open / In a fundamental way . . . / It’s coming from the women and the men.”

This unexpected optimism in the face of shattered dreams and ruined miracles arises from Cohen’s almost mystical belief in the connection between the collapse of an old order–political, psychic, or spiritual–and the rising of a new one. “Anthem,” the centerpiece of the disc, traces this cycle of decay and regeneration: “Don’t dwell on what / Has passed away / Or what has yet to be / The wars they will / Be fought again / The holy dove / Be caught again / Bought and sold / And bought again / The dove is never free.”

This is a new, mature Cohen, up off his knees, taking responsibility both for the implications of doubt and the obligations inherent in faith. He may still go weak at the sight of “a woman / Beneath this / Resplendent chemise” (“Light as the Breeze”), but he can also summon the courage to stand tall in the face of immolation and see hope and democracy rising “from the fires of the homeless / From the ashes of the gay.” Cohen hasn’t given up on the redemptive power of love, either; he’s simply learned that it requires time and discipline to attain. “Every heart / To love will come / But as a refugee” (“Anthem”)–no more rogue’s salvation, no more easy benedictions from sainted Sisters of Mercy or an exalted Lady of Solitude.

The poet has come a long way from Suzanne’s place near the river; he realizes now that you can’t “travel blind” if you want to get anywhere that matters. Instead he turns to face the world with both eyes open, earning his lover’s blessing and finding cause for optimism in the very arrival of the desolation he prophesies. “There is a crack in everything,” he concludes in “Anthem.” “That’s how the light gets in.”