Leonard Cohen's Darkness Is a Beacon
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.
By Chris Dickens
The author is a writer who currently lives in Hawaii.
I spent election night in rural Hawaii, with internet speeds that would allow no more than to watch the red creep slowly toward me across a simple graphic of the continent and to simultaneously stream Leonard Cohen’s latest album, You Want It Darker. From the album’s first line — “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game” — to lyrics such as “Sounded like the truth / But it’s not the truth today,” it seemed somehow written after election night. And much of the album seems even more prescient now that news of Cohen’s death, on the day before the election, has reached us, and in the face of a subsequent realization: In the span of a single day, we lost our brightest soul and elected the face of our deepest fear and hatred to highest office.
This week, many of us, as a friend of mine put it, are having trouble with reality. As my sister and I drank whiskey and revisited our favorite Cohen songs last night, what struck me as a major chord that sounded through many of his lyrics was that same struggle with what the world really looks like at times — and that maybe in times like this, when we’re angry and hurt and afraid of the dark, our best beacon is not a light. It’s a mirror of that darkness.
A God-forsaken brand of pessimism, delivered with wry humor.
Some of Cohen’s darkest lyrics, spanning six decades and dealing with topics as reality-shattering as the Holocaust, serve as reminder that what’s happened this past week, as devastating as it is to many of us, is nothing new, that the history of humanity is a long battle of light against dark and that the latter too often wins. There’s a God-forsaken brand of pessimism, delivered with wry humor, in songs like “The Future,” which declares, “I’ve seen the future, brother / It is murder,” and “The blizzard of the world / has crossed the threshold / and it has overturned / the order of the soul.” But it’s not just a grim look at the world offered by a song like “The Future.” It also taps into postelection, you-assholes-did-this-shit-so-enjoy-dealing-with-it righteous anger like nothing else: “Take the only tree that’s left / and stuff it up the hole / in your culture.” I don’t know about you, but that’s a sentiment I can relate to right now.
If you want it darker, “Everybody Knows” is your fix. In this anthem, we’re given an efficiently compact list of the kind of terrible shit everyone knows, including, in a single, hope-drowning first verse, that a) the dice are loaded, b) the good guys lost, c) the fight was fixed, d) the poor stay poor, e) the rich get richer and, finally, well, f) that’s just how it goes.
Cohen’s latest album, as the title hints, is no different in its offering of darknesses of all kinds, including that of his own impending death — the major subject of much of his recent work. The rhetorical effect of all this wizened, faux-callous comic detachment to the hard realities of our world can be, at least for me, strangely uplifting. After all, there’s a redemptive force in having one’s feelings articulated so artistically by another, in the certain knowledge that you are not alone in the fight against, and the fear of, the darkness.
But of course, holding up a dark glass is only one part of Cohen’s talent. As he sings elsewhere, “There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
In the light of the beauty found in Cohen’s oeuvre, there’s the simple truth that, because such things exist, it’s all worth it in the end.
It’s not hard to find the light of his pure comedic brilliance in songs like “Field Commander Cohen,” in which he imagines himself as a spy “parachuting acid into diplomatic cocktail parties / urging Fidel Castro to abandon fields and castles” and the doo-wap plea in “Memories” of a boy at a school dance trying to convince “the tallest and the blondest girl” there to let him see her naked: the one thing she won’t do. There are rays of hope in lines like “Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began / to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again” and in “And clenching your fist / For the ones like us / Who are oppressed by the figures of beauty / You fixed yourself / You said, ‘Well, never mind / We are ugly but we have the music.’ ”
And there’s the light of wisdom in so many of his lyrics, including this one from one of my favorite tracks off this last album: “Steer your heart past the truth / You believed in yesterday.”
The truth I most believed in yesterday — the yesterday when Leonard Cohen was still writing his dark, poetic vision of the world and a toddler-like “reality”-TV personality was not poised to be my president — was the kind of truth only found in art. It’s tough not to see that as naive right now, in some ways, and yet, I also know that, in the light of the immense talent and beauty found in Cohen’s oeuvre of songs, poems, and novels, there’s the simple truth that, because such things exist, it’s all worth it in the end, even if the darkness might be winning at the moment.