“If the stars were all unpinned / And a cold and bitter wind / Swallowed up the world / Without a trace / Well that’s where I would be / What my life would seem to me / If I couldn’t lift the veil / And see your face” — “If I Didn’t Have Your Love,” You Want it Darker, Leonard Cohen
“Not to sorrow is not even human; it is diabolical. The spirit of God hallows sorrow.” –Oswald Chambers, Not Knowing Where
When I put this CD on hold at the library Mr. Cohen was alive. By the time it was ready for pick up he was dead. That was a little strange. Now you might think that means I’m one of those in-the-music-loop kind of people who is always in the know about the best new music that nobody is listening to yet. I can assure you that isn’t the case. Lately I’ve been listening to Dave Brubeck, the Trolls soundtrack, and Carly Rae Jepson. No music insider here. Here is how the hold came about:
Pentatonix circulates their version of “Hallelujah” on FB > Who wrote that song? > Leonard Cohen >Wikipedia > Oh, he’s got a new album releasing soon I should give it a listen > library hold
So I can’t talk about this music with the lingo of a person who has listened to his music for a lifetime or as a person who is actively seeking and researching new awesome music all the time. I just come to this having listened to this one album and the “Hallelujah” track and reading some about his life.
I appreciate this album as a voice for those who feel their hidden reality is striving to see the unseeable, to know the unknowable. It’s a companion for those trying to grasp and grapple with the divine wonder of life and how it’s gone awry and our relationship to the one who made it. Maybe that is the majority of people. In any case, this is a voice for that kind of spiritual striving and longing.
I also appreciate it as a melodious voice for heartache, despair, injustice and disappointment. Even the most spiritual, faithful people need beautiful ways to to get it out, poetic ways to articulate confusion and navigate the mess. These kinds of songs are missing from the current repertoire of the praise and worship set of most christian churches. We seem to be lacking a lexicon of lament. I love the church, am part of the church, but I can’t remember any songs based on Hosea or Jeremiah. Who better to articulate our wade through the muck than an 80 year-old Quebecois speak-singing his haunting lyrics with the cadence of a gravel-gargling smoker? No really, it’s beautiful. I promise. The way he uses the imagery of Judeo-Christian scripture vaguely in his lyrics speaks to the christian pilgrim’s journey even if that isn’t what he had in mind. Whatever the application, he isn’t afraid to wrangle the truth in that small space between dark and light.
Ultimately I think he misunderstood God in this life. I don’t think he settled on an image of God who gives and receives love, who is Love. But therein lies the crux of his appeal. We all misundertand God to various degrees. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV).
In response to his song “Treaty,” which starts like this: “I wish there was a treaty we could sign / It’s over now, the water and the wine / We were broken then but now we’re boarderline / I wish there was a treaty / Between your love and mine…” I want to tell Leonard something that in his death he now knows. Psst! There is a treaty. It’s the Trinity. I can’t write like you could, Mr. Cohen, but I claim that one thing as True. It is my only comfort in “the holy or the broken Hallelujah”.