When It Comes to Writing Lyrics, Leonard Cohen Is Second to No One, Including Bob Dylan

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Feb. 8 2012 12:15 PM

Hallelujah for Leonard Cohen

When it comes to lyrics, he’s second to no one—including Dylan.

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If Cohen is not as wild a poet as Dylan, he's closer to the heartstrings—his and ours both. He's got his surreal side too, but it's in support of his essential realism. And in many ways he's gotten better as he got older, which few would claim about Dylan. Cohen's best songs do what I think popular song ought to do: Capture something meaningful in our lives and put it into melodies worth singing in the shower.

I'll be adding to my mix songs from Old Ideas as I get to know it. (You can hear it streamed here.) In this one Cohen doesn't bother with the music so much, and he barely bothers to sing—or maybe his voice is too frayed for that now. He's homing in on the words, in that sense maybe returning to his roots as a young poet winning prizes and admirers. The valedictory quality is inescapable, starting with the titles: "Amen," "Darkness." It begins with "Going Home," which is a stern and sardonic address to the poet from his muse, or from God, or maybe they're the same:

I love to speak with Leonard,
he's a sportsman and a shepherd,
he's a lazy bastard livin' in a suit.
But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn't welcome—
he just doesn't have the freedom to refuse.

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The song has one of Cohen’s unforgettable refrains:

Going home without my burden,
going home behind the curtain,
going home without this costume that I wore.

Over the decades, Cohen's songs have steadily darkened, even as five years in a Zen monastery during the ’90s tempered some of his lifelong depression. In Old Ideas, Cohen reaches maybe the deepest black yet in “The Darkness." Here darkness is at the center of all, evoking death, naturally, but also love and regret: "Winning you was easy, but darkness was the price." Yet there's still always a small niche for hope and renewal: "Come healing of the reason, come healing of the heart." In the new album there's a kind of aura around every line, a sense of something said once and for all, and it's not all bleakness, and it's terrifically moving.

Looking over his songs from the last decades, one has one's complaints. In some periods I wish there were more acoustics and less synth and slick production. For a while he was afflicted with Phil Spector. To mention another regret: I dearly love "The Land of Plenty" from Ten New Songs, right from its gently wafting opening lick, but I wish he had let this one blossom around its unforgettable refrain:

May the lights in the land of plenty
Shine on the truth someday.

Instead, Cohen takes it into some kind of vaporous personal kvetch:

I know I said I'd meet you,
I'd meet you at the store,
but I can't buy it, baby,
I can't buy it anymore.

I have a fantasy that someday he'll give in and write two or three verses for "The Land of Plenty" that are worthy of its refrain. It could be a song to make things happen, the way "This Land Is Your Land" and "We Shall Overcome" do. But in Ten New Songs he's generally near his prime. "My Secret Life" and "Here It is" are among the great ones, and "A Thousand Kisses Deep" is becoming the classic it deserves to be.

Love, lust, bitterness, transcendence. In his art the range of his concerns and his responses to life inescapably reflect his experience. The long list of his lovers, short- and long-term, includes Joni Mitchell and Rebecca de Mornay, with a celebrated-in-song encounter with Janis Joplin—"giving me head on the unmade bed/ while the limousines wait in the street." True, he later regretted those lines ("My mother would be appalled"). In person and in song, Cohen is funnier than you expect. That's another part of his range, his life. Cohen is reported to be an observant Jew and is an ordained Buddhist monk, and I'm not kidding. Yet some of the most memorable imagery in his songs is Christian:

Here is your cross,
Your nails and your hill;
And here is your love,
That lists where it will.

As for listing, I'm the sort of annoying person who trots out lists of favorites. With Dylan songs I'm not so sure what they are, because the nature of surrealism is that one bit of surrealism is more or less equivalent to another, and his rants and putdowns (see "Positively Fourth Street") only intermittently entertain me.

But with Cohen I know my favorites. Here are three to illustrate why I call him the finest poet of our songwriters.  As usual the lyrics shine while the music is along for the ride—but particularly good rides in these cases.

The one already mentioned is "Democracy," which is generally the first song I play for people who don't know Cohen. It invariably knocks them out. Maybe my favorite is "Closing Time," partly because it's a terrific tune as tune, actually a fine thing to dance to, thanks to some splendid sidepersons.

It has all Cohen's fractured, paradoxical brilliance on display. The first verse sets a boozy Saturday-night scene:

Ah, we're drinking and we're dancing
and the band is really happening
and the Johnny Walker wisdom running high.
And my very sweet companion,
she's the Angel of Compassion,
she's rubbing half the world against her thigh.
And every drinker every dancer
lifts a happy face to thank her,
the fiddler fiddles something so sublime.

All the women tear their blouses off
and the men they dance on the polka-dots
and it's partner found, it's partner lost,
and it's hell to pay when the fiddler stops.
It's closing time.

That mix of quotidian horniness, Biblical overtones, party trance, and down and dirty jealousy is classic Cohen. But everything turns on that little refrain. It reminds me of refrains in Yeats, one of Cohen's touchstones: Daybreak and a candle end. In the course of "Closing Time," the refrain evolves from the closing of a bar to the closing of love to the closing of life:

I loved you when our love was blessed,
and I love you now there's nothing left
but sorrow and a sense of overtime.
And I missed you since the place got wrecked,
and I just don't care what happens next:
Looks like freedom but it feels like death,
it's something in between, I guess.
It's closing time.

If "Closing Time" is my favorite all in all, the one I call Cohen's greatest is "Anthem."

This song doesn't wander off into personal bitterness and regret. It sets the sights high and keeps them there. It's a sort of gospel song celebrating the brokenness of life, everything flawed and incomplete, and the possibility of redemption in that. In its refrain there is a kind of truth the like of which is hard to find in popular song.

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.

I don't know if the end of that verse comes from some venerable Eastern text. It's good enough for that, but I suspect it's all Cohen. In the song, that sad revelation is inseparable from his whiskey baritone, and irony always hovers in the wings. But you don't forget it. It's the kind of truth that is cinched by the perfection of its saying. These are words to engrave not on a wall, but on your soul. Here's what our troubadours can do when they're truly great, and when they truly mean what they say.

Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.

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