Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate at 50
The man who author Tom Robbins once called “The Poet Prince of Montreal,” Leonard Cohen was long considered a singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter, up until his death.
People knew “Hallelujah,”as a standard popularized by Jeff Buckley or Rufus Wainwright, sure. But in the weeks after Cohen’s death from falling down a flight of stairs the night that Donald Trump won the election, his work and spirit experienced a resurgence beyond the standard posthumous boost in album sales.
The singular artfulness of Cohen’s work – typified by a mindful balance for duality of perception, for the sacred and the profane, the soul and the body, the spirit and the flesh – demonstrated a nuanced understanding around the systems of culture and society that seem to have lost all their balance over the last five years. Additionally, Cohen elegantly put a name to the feelings of loneliness and isolation, of depression and self-imposed exile that have intensified amid a world out of balance. The name made those ugly feelings beautiful.
During his final tours, Cohen loved to repeat a joke about his depression and the medicine he took to treat it. “I’ve taken a lot of Prozac, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Ritalin, Focalin,” he would often say. “I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies of the religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.”
VIDEO: Leonard Cohen Auckland, NZ December 2013
The journey toward cheerfulness took time, though, and work. In the years before that tour, Cohen had ascended California’s Mount Baldy to become an ordained Zen monk (and was robbed of his life savings in the process). In fact, that was why he was touring again in the first place. But there were many years when Cohen had learned to sit with his deep, dark blues – not explaining them away in the role of entertainer. And 50 years ago, on March 19, 1971, Songs of Love and Hate was unleashed on a world still mourning the death of 1960’s idealism, grappling with the ugliness of a free love culture and the alternate communities it spawned.
As we now begin to unthaw from a year rife with death, loss, widespread mental illness and feelings of losing someone you love to a cult or radicalized tribe, Cohen’s third record is illuminated as reminder that, though the zeitgeist has been bruised, these cultural lows are not without historical precedent..
The artwork for Songs of Love and Hate is minimal, capturing the bipolar depths that the songs plunder. Cohen’s disembodied head adorns the front cover, smiling like a simpleton or a madman, while the back features a poem of Cohen’s that appears nowhere on the album: “They locked up a man/Who wanted to rule the world/The fools/They locked up the wrong man.”
Songs of Love and Hate explores both extremes of sentiment through long-form, somber songs that will not convert anyone who has long avoided Cohen with the pretext of him being a “bummer”. In this respect, its lyrics reward deep listeners and those able to sit with the ugliness and beauty in equal measure. Save for “Diamonds in the Mine,” no track is shorter than five minutes, but the dense song cycle only adds to its emotional intensity, standing out among the most intense works of a man who was known for making emotionally intense works. Cohen, who we will henceforth refer to as “the singer,” a love unrequited in both physical and spiritual forms, while his hate has been consummated. It is angry, acerbic and filled with bile.
On opener “Avalanche,” the singer describes himself as a hunchback who has sunk even lower than what most typically consider pain. “You who wish to conquer pain, you must learn to serve me well,” he sings. Nick Cave’s debut album with The Bad Seeds, From Her to Eternity, began with a cover of “Avalanche,” reminding us that generations of gothic-leaning loners have honored Songs of Love and Hate as a prototypical, foundational gospel of brooding emptiness.
The singer follows with “Last Year’s Man,” a gorgeous number about fleeting notoriety and unfulfilled ambition. He references a jew’s harp in the lyrics, seemingly alluding to the instrument’s presence on his prior record, Songs From a Room, and that album’s lukewarm reception. We first meet Joan of Arc in this song, too, not just the matron saint of Cohen’s Montreal, but here a lady playing with her soldiers in the dark. Cohen’s claiming to abandon his post as a defender of the saint—”And though I wear a uniform, I was not born to fight/ all these wounded boys you lie beside/Good night, my friends, goodnight.”
Cohen has said that his “Joan of Arc” was a stand-in for the singer and scene darling Nico. If that’s the case, the singer here refuses to be among the myriad of male lovers following her like soldiers that included Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and Jackson Browne.
Later on in the song, the singer stumbles across an arranged wedding that “old families have contrived/ Bethlehem the Bridegroom, Babylon the Bride.” The singer chooses to distance himself from any conspiratory stereotypes or secret cabals ascribed to the Jews. Even among those outcast minorities who make up Jewish faith, the singer is an outcast.
“Dress Rehearsal Rag” and “Diamonds in the Mine” hit us with a one-two punch of sordid imagery (a shady Santa Claus, an elephant graveyard, razorblades and veins like highways, Charlie Manson training women to kill.) Side A ends at this low point, with some of the darkest words the singer has ever written (including the Phil Spector-produced Death of a Ladies Man album and his swan song, You Want It Darker).
The singer then launches into a gorgeous paen for true love with the epic “Love Calls You By Your Name,” bringing his gift for presenting dual images alongside each other to a head by implying that love lives in those in-between spaces (“Between the birthmark and the stain/Between the ocean and your open vein/Between the snowman and the rain/Once again”). As the album’s title suggests, the singer doesn’t know how to live with the in-between, and as such, does not know love.
“Famous Blue Raincoat,” meanwhile, might best capture the loneliness and isolation of winter in New York lived alone, as the singer describes hearing music on Clinton Street while he writes to a woman seeking to understand her fleeting transience and a love triangle he’s gotten himself into. He asks, “Did you ever go clear?” alluding to the fact that the subject of his letter has been lost to Scientology. It’s a reminder that the depression and isolation and severed bonds between those we love that we are all experiencing right now have long existed, and that there didn’t used to be nearly as many tools for communication. In this case, he’s singing a letter that he signs with his name.
Recorded live during his hallowed Isle of Wight set in 1970, “Sing Another Song, Boys”further suggests the singer’s belief that young Jewish women ought to free themselves from the stereotypes and old-world behavior isolating his people from the rest of the world. He describes a money lender’s lovely little daughter, who is “eaten with desire”:
“She spies him through the glasses/
Through the pawn shops of her wicked father/
She hails him through a microphone that some poor singer, just like me, had to leave her/
She tempts him with a clarinet/
She waves a Nazi dagger.”
The singer suggests that sex could cleanse her in those moments, a life preserver of modernity for a young woman he sees on the verge of falling into old, ancient patterns of cultural isolation. And yet, she’s more drawn to the past artifact of destruction and ruin than she is to the future tool of creation. The young girl at the pawn shop, much like the singer at his lowest moments on the record, is mired in the bleakness of the past that she is unable to see the future.
AUDIO: Leonard Cohen performs “Sing Another Song, Boys” Live at the Isle of Wight 1970
The album’s brilliant closer, “Joan of Arc,” seems to reference Nico again just as seems to reference the historical figure. Cohen would further explore his obsession with French-Canadian saints in Beautiful Losers, wherein he explicitly imagines a lurid relationship with the only Native American saint, Catherine Tekawitha, who converted to Christianity and left New York’s Mohawk Valley for a Jesuit mission south of Montreal in 1677.
This closing number recalls a 1988 interview with Cohen, and his response when asked if he ever fell in love. “Oh, I fall in love all the time,” he said. “I remember walking with Nico and I said, ‘Do you think Joan of Arc fell in love?’ and she said, ‘All the time, Leonard. All the time’. I feel my heart going out 100 times a day.”
Songs of Love and Hate is essential Leonard Cohen not only because it contains some of his finest songs, but because it’s pivotal for anyone trying to understand why some hear beauty and eternal wisdom when they listen to his music, and others hear bleakness and despair. Maybe.