Leonard Cohen’s Dark Wisdom

The late singer’s unflinching worldview resonates especially in the week of his death.

Eloy Alonso / Reuters

Anyone despairing about the world, humanity, and evil can turn to Leonard Cohen’s catalogue for the comfort of confirmation. He sang of dark beating light, of human attachment as flimsy and breakable, of deep fears being validated inexorably, of the greatest temptation being the embrace of defeat. He cracked jokes and sang of romance, but as part of the larger, grimmer project we’re all engaged in: “There’s a lover in the story / But the story’s still the same,” he explained in song this year. This unflinching worldview underlay his many virtues—his cutting poetic sensibility, his cracked and ever-deepening voice, his flair for flamenco, and his melodies that became an unending source of inspiration across the musical landscape.

He has died at age 82, shortly after he said in interviews and song he was ready to die, shortly after he’d written a farewell note to his ailing ex and lyrical muse Marianne Ihlen offering, “it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon.” Immediate comparisons between his passing and David Bowie’s are fair; like Bowie’s Blackstar, Cohen’s October release You Want It Darker is a very moving late-in-life work that sounds preoccupied by death. “I’m leaving the table,” he announced in the magnificent grumble his voice had become. “I’m out of the game.”

That album, though, was not unique in its themes of surrender. Surrender has in fact been the preoccupation of Cohen’s career, a career that began in poetry, saw him move to New York City’s folk scene in his 30s, and continued until death save a few hiatuses, including a years-long stint at a Zen monastery where he practiced the kind of personal abdication he always sang about. “If you want a lover, I’ll do anything you ask me to / And if you want another kind of love, I’ll wear a mask for you,” he began on 1988’s “I’m Your Man,” going on to offer a bottomless list of concessions to a woman: “If you want to work the street alone, I’ll disappear for you.”

This view of love as imprisonment and identity theft gave his breakup songs their edge. Many of his best works are wry, smug farewells that darkly anticipate a return of agency. There’s the extraordinarily intimate “Famous Blue Raincoat,” a friendly resignation letter to the man who has made him a cuckold: “If you ever come by here for Jane or for me / Your enemy is sleeping / And his woman is free.” There are also the classics “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” and  “So Long, Marianne” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” all relishing in the transitory: “Let's not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie.”

The same fascination with submission carried over into his songs about God and humanity and society, though in a bitterer fashion because the relationship between controller and controlled was more permanent and more cruel. The Holocaust recurred as a motif, as in the deceptively jaunty “Dance Me to the End of Love,” inspired by string players at the death camps, or in “You Want It Darker,” a frank indictment of God. He had a habit of giving melody to prayers, too, as on “Who By Fire,” where he extended a Yom Kippur chant about divine-ordained manners of death to include barbiturates and “high ordeal.”

In the current American political moment, many listeners may want to turn to Cohen’s late ’80s and early ’90s work, whose unhinged and synthetic-sounding airings of modern disaffection offer not comfort but understanding. There is “First We Take Manhattan,” which opens, “They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom / For trying to change the system from within” and goes on to hint at the kind of rebellion we may now be witnessing by resentful workaday masses. There is “The Future,” where Cohen embodies the panic of wanting to opt out of history’s march: “I've seen the future, brother / It is murder.” There is “Everybody Knows,” whose dread hit me in the stomach last night tabbing between news of Cohen’s death and political headlines:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died

And there is “Anthem,” which David Remnick keyed upon in his recent revelatory New Yorker profile of the singer. As the arrangement sways and builds, Cohen sings of war and death and peace as unending cycles, but he also offers this: “There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” The hope in his catalogue is in that idea of light through the cracks, in the notion of the holy and the broken Hallelujah, in prostrating before indifferent forces but also raging against them. In “Suzanne,” the song that began his career, he suggested that religion’s promise was that freedom lay only in death. But still in life, like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, Cohen tried in his way to be free.