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Music: Leonard Cohen Sounds Ready to Die

March 13, 2012


?Father Damian Ference has added a new record to his collection: Leonard Cohen’s recently released Old Ideas. His review of the album yielded 4.5 out of 5 stars, and he explains why, today on the WOF Blog.

An old friend called the other day to tell me that he bought Leonard Cohen’s new record, Old Ideas. I asked him what he thought. He said, “It sounds a lot like what Johnny Cash was doing on his last albums.” My friend isn’t the religious type, so he didn’t specifically mention the themes of sorrow, suffering, death, healing, redemption, and mercy, but I knew exactly what he was getting at. I told him, “Well, Cohen is pushing eighty, so that’s what’s on his mind.” He agreed.

Mortality has always been a major theme of Cohen’s work, along with God, love, faith, sex, sacrifice, longing, heartache, and hope. And it makes sense that Cohen entitled his latest effort Old Ideas, because he has been writing about these ideas for over fifty years, so there isn’t much new here, except for the fact that now, Cohen seems more comfortable than ever dealing with them. Of course, these ideas are much older than him – these are the ideas that are at the very heart of the human experience – they are the ideas that, once distractions are removed, demand all of our attention.
Cohen’s voice seems to have gotten deeper on Old Ideas, if that is possible. (It sounds like he’s been gargling gravel.) And since he has never had great vocal range, he fittingly experiments with only a few notes on the entire record – but it works.
Anyone who has followed Leonard Cohen’s career knows that he loves women, and not always in the right way. He has penned songs about Suzanne, Marianne, Heather, and many others who remain anonymous. On Old Ideas, a remorseful Cohen attempts to reconcile past loves as he admits that his passions often got the best of him. On “Darkness,” a track with a bluesy-twang feel, Cohen confesses, “I should have seen it coming/It was right behind your eyes/You were young and it was summer/I just had to take a dive/Winning you was easy/But darkness was the prize.” For Cohen, the darkness is sensual pleasure – something that appears to satisfy, but never does. Humbly, he exposes his life-long weakness for what it is.
Again, on “Crazy to Love You,” Cohen takes responsibility and admits that he has been what Aristotle calls The Incontinent Man – one who knows what is right, wants to do what is right, but is too weak to do it. In other words, he chose what was pleasurable over what was truly good: “Had to be crazy to love you/You who were never the one/Whom I chased through the souvenir heartache/Her braids and her blouse all undone.” Cohen offers a mental picture that even tempts his listener, as he lets us in on the severity of his inner-struggle. But in the last verse he confidently proclaims, “I’m tired of choosing desire” as if to say that he has learned a valuable lesson, making a distinction between what looks good and what actually is good.
On the slow and steady “Amen,” Cohen moves from his memory of women to memory itself and he begs over and over to be reminded of the things he is afraid to forget. He recognizes that identity depends upon memory, and that memory is easily lost, so he must fight for it, by constantly pleading, “Tell me again!”   The first verse of “Amen” is personal, but as the song builds, so does the scope of the narrative. It takes Cohen almost eight minutes to move from the personal to the communal and eventually to the apocalyptic. In the final verse Cohen sings in his grave and haunting voice, “Tell me again/When the filth of the butcher/Is washed in the blood of the lamb/Tell me again/When the rest of the culture/Has passed thru’ the eye of the camp.” Like a prophet, Cohen reminds us that suffering and death are inevitable realities, and that redemption comes at a cost.
“Banjo” is one of those songs whose lyrics say one thing while the music says another (like Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks”). Cohen’s rich and textured voice is complimented by ethereal back-up vocals and New Orleans-style horns, yet the song itself is sad, as Cohen sings about a “broken banjo bopping on the dark infested sea.” The banjo is a metaphor for the beauty, music, and life, which is now broken and bopping up and down in the ocean. Cohen can’t figure out how the banjo got there, but he guesses that it was taken by the wave off someone’s shoulder, or out of someone’s grave. And now that same power that took the banjo out to sea is moving toward Cohen: “It’s coming for me darling/No matter where I go/Its duty is to harm me/My duty is to know.” Cohen is not naïve or ignorant. He knows death is near, and he seems ready.
The most beautiful and most hopeful track on the new record is, hands-down, “Come Healing.”   The song begins with the Webb Sisters singing in angelic voice, “O gather up the brokenness/And bring it to me now/The fragrance of those promises/You never dared to vow/The splinters that you carry/the cross you left behind/Come healing of the body/Come healing of the mind.” (If I didn’t know better, I would use this song at a communal penance service.) Cohen comes in on the second verse over the voices of the women and he sings of mercy, grace and the solitude of longing. It’s as if we catch a glimpse of Leonard Cohen’s life-story in this, the shortest song on the record. 
The real world is anything but easy, and on “Come Healing” Cohen acknowledges that we suffer tremendous hurts along the way – some of our own doing, some the doing of others, and some hurts whose origins remain a mystery. This track acts as a prayer, which is a petition for the deepest kind of healing, the most complete healing – a healing that leaves nothing out – the healing of the body, the mind, the spirit, the limb, the reason, the heart, the Altar, and the Name. And even if you missed it in the lyrics, the harmony, melody and variety of instruments all tell the same story, perhaps even better. (Wear a long-sleeve shirt if you are embarrassed by goose bumps when listening to this one.)
Leonard Cohen isn’t a Catholic, but he was raised in Quebec, so he understands the Catholic worldview. And being Jewish, he knows all about God, creation, sin, and the Fall. Like all of us, he longs for redemption and healing, and knows that life does not end when we die, as he sings on an earlier record, “there’s a mighty judgment coming.”   And as one of my priest friends said after we listened to the new record together, “Leonard will have a big smile when he meets the Christ face to face.”

Old Ideas is ultimately a collection of songs about a man preparing for death. And in a culture where most artists do everything they can to distract us from thinking about death, or worse, try to convince us that death is the final end, Leonard Cohen gifts us with a prophetic message: momento mori.

Rev. Damian J. Ference is a priest of the diocese of Cleveland. He is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and a member of the formation faculty at Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio.