HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN
Surviving the Darkness With Leonard Cohen: 7 Songs to Make Sense of Our Times
One of the greatest lyricists and songwriters of all time passed away just as gloom took hold in the West. Here are his best songs to help cope with the despair and find hope in the future.
Leonard Cohen—the Montreal Mensch, the Poet Laureate of Despair, the Godfather of Gloom—passed away this week at 82.
Considering some of his popular nicknames—often invoking gloom and despair—it’s clear Cohen understood the darkness in the world and within humanity. He wrote about it with clarity and a sharp sense of humor, often concluding his sermons with a Zen-like nod at the fact that none of us are in control—and we are all just passing through anyhow.
Though he will mostly be remembered to a wider audience as the man who wrote “Hallelujah”—the erotic spiritual poem that transformed into a soaring standard of TV shows, movies, churches, and synagogues, thanks, in part, to some 300+ covers, there are countless other songs that demonstrate Cohen’s legendary lyricism—ones that never achieved the Various Positions throwaway track’s commercial legacy, but have had lasting effects on musicians and fans far and wide.
Cohen left this world just as a creeping nationalism seems to have taken hold in the West. Americans on Tuesday elected a reality-TV star who spent a year stoking the flames of discontent, capitalizing on white working-class fears by making promises to institute xenophobic policies while encouraging people to embrace their worst instincts in how they treat other human beings.
For many, these feel like dark times.
All of the below Leonard Cohen songs were written decades before we found ourselves in our current predicament, and yet they all provide wisdom in explaining how we got here; how to cope with the engulfing darkness; and how to find the light when it seems all hope is lost.
Perhaps the greatest verse in Cohen’s career is one of folk music’s most comforting ever: "Ring the bells that still can ring,” he sings over a swelling choir, “Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack, a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in.” No matter how bleak, how depressing the world may seem at any given moment, there is always room for light; there is always a silver lining. Cohen summarized that in a way few other artists have done.
“Everybody Knows” (1988)
Cohen’s most pessimistic take on society’s ills—and the complacent people who fail to change it—is a verse-by-verse punch to the gut: “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.”
And this might sound familiar to those who felt the 2016 election offered up a bleak scenario: “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.”
“Story of Isaac” (1969)
“This is a song called ‘The Story of Isaac,’ and it’s about those who would sacrifice one generation on behalf of another,” Cohen once said of this song, the second track on his essential second album, Songs From a Room. Ever the spiritual man, Cohen relayed the biblical story of Abraham nearly sacrificing his son Isaac—a test of his loyalty to God—as a way of conveying the endless cycle of men sending their sons off to war.
That generational divide is present again in the wake of Tuesday’s election, with a majority of millennial voters casting ballots against Trump, while older generations favored the firebrand Republican. The general malaise of younger, more liberal voters is that older generations have now foisted upon them a deeply unstable leader with a track record for self-aggrandizement at the expense of others. Rinse, repeat.
“Diamonds in the Mine” (1971)
Cohen never sounded more furious than on this cut from Songs of Love and Hate. It’s not clear what, specifically, he was railing against—but the sweeping condemnation of societal decay is obvious. “The woman in blue, she's asking for revenge / The man in white—that's you—says he has no friends / The river is swollen up with rusty cans / And the trees are burning in your promised land,” he growls, before jumping into a downright furious chorus: “And there are no letters in the mailbox / And there are no grapes upon the vine / And there are no chocolates in the boxes anymore / And there are no diamonds in the mine.” If staring down the barrel of four-plus years of a monumentally ill-equipped president possibly deporting millions of people and restricting more civil liberties doesn’t push you to see no light in sight, this song might.
Despite its many flaws, no more obvious than during the past year, we still cling to the idea of America’s unique greatness. As a Canadian, Cohen wrote this outsider’s take on the American dream—the good, the bad, and the ugly—as a way of exploring its dark past and misdeeds to implore for hope in the future. “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.,” he chants, alternating between sarcasm and earnestness, “It's coming to America first, the cradle of the best and of the worst.”
“I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean / I love the country but I can’t stand the scene,” he later adds, echoing the sentiment of disaffected voters decades later. “And I'm neither left or right / I'm just staying home tonight / Getting lost in that hopeless little screen.” Eerily prescient.
“Tower of Song” (1988)
In his fifties, Cohen incorporated the synth into his music and began creating Beatnik new-wave songs often reflecting, with a razor-sharp wit, upon his own career and his crawl toward inevitable death. “Now you can say that I've grown bitter, but of this you may be sure / The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor,” he observed, as an elder statesman, of the 1980s and of pretty much every other decade. “And there's a mighty judgment coming...” he prophesied. Of course, that’s yet to come, it seems. Even Cohen knew that: “...but I may be wrong / You see, you hear these funny voices / In the Tower of Song.”
“Passing Through” (1972)
Ah, but don’t forget about hope. And unity. For his 1973 live album, appropriately named Live Songs, Cohen included a rousing stomp-along rendition of this folk standard that reminds all of humanity to see past the divisions—“Yankee, Russian, white or tan… A man is still a man. We're all on one road, and we’re only passing through”—and to never give up the fight for justice: “Men will suffer, men will fight, even die for what is right. Even though they know they're only passing through.” It’s possible to see the humanity in those with whom you disagree while also not giving up on your own convictions.