Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
- “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen
A poet first and foremost, there is perhaps no better summation of Cohen’s ethos than the lyrics above. The Westmount, Quebec native passed away at the age of 82. His death was only announced on Thursday as he was buried in his Montreal synagogue along with his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. There is a reason he was called "the songwriter's songwriter," as his influence spread across genres. If you're a fan of rock, hip-hop, pop, indie, or folk, or essentially any lyrical genre, Cohen had a hand in that as Radiohead's Thom Yorke, Q-Tip, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Justin Timberlake, Ben Folds and many more paid tribute over the week. Even acknowledged by Justin Trudeau, Cohen's music transcended the national consciousness and echoed all over the world.
Through themes of religion, love, politics, life and death, he and his gravelly baritone were able to pull the listener into his uniquely mordant worldview. Amidst lyrics of loneliness, decay and nihilism remained his wry sense of humour. Cohen, more than any other songwriter of the past fifty years, understood the cheques and balances that come with life on this earth. These are the cracks of light that break through the darkness. Love goes hand in hand with heartbreak, while death and life are inextricably linked. The latter is something he wholly embraced on his final album, You Want It Darker, released three weeks before his death.
The music of Leonard Cohen, a possible exception being the still grim synthpop of I’m Your Man, is not made to be played at parties or even in the company of all but your closest friends. Cohen’s music is made for the individual soul, and only when they are ready to hear it on his terms. How else can one listen to his 1971 album Songs of Love and Hate? Songs like “Dress Rehearsal Rag” coexist with “Famous Blue Raincoat,” the former being a devastatingly candid song about suicide, while the latter regards a sombre love triangle. Like the poetry of “Anthem,” Cohen’s album emphasizes that all of these experiences are a part of the same thing. By coupling them together with his biblical yet sardonic sensibilities, Cohen provided the catharsis that was elusive to many.
This sense of catharsis is feasibly his greatest gift as an artist, and the premiere reason the moniker of the “Canadian Dylan” simply doesn’t do him justice. Leonard Cohen was many things. A poet, folk hero, lover, troubadour, philosopher. Most important was his authenticity; none of this was a front. He was very much the wise, measured man he appeared to be, yet just as prone to breaking down as the rest of us. It is in this that he was able to find the beauty in pain, and from that, a sense of release.
Cohen’s discography was never destined for the Billboard Hot 100. His impact was much more than that. I’m speaking of one of the most haunting, mercurial, and oft-covered songs in American music history: “Hallelujah.” Not even Cohen could tell you what it means, but as everyone from John Cale, and Bob Dylan to Rufus Wainwright in Shrek has recorded their own version, the song grew into an essential part of the popular music mythology. To some, it is about religion, the worship or loss of. To others it is about love, platonic, erotic, and unrequited. Jeff Buckley, the died-too-young singer whose cover has perhaps co-opted Cohen’s in the mind of the public, called it “a Hallelujah to the orgasm.”
Leonard Cohen may have passed beyond us, but like any great art, the connection and inspiration he fostered with his poetry and music will continue to ripple throughout the years.
- Nicholas Sokic is a third-year arts and humanities student at Western