Leonard Cohen turned to songwriting because he wasn’t making a living as a writer. He never looked back.
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
Leonard Cohen wrote these words for the song “Anthem” (1992) and they apply as much to the way he led his life as to a voice that – judging by his latest album “You Want It Darker” – is unmistakably a cracked bell tolling down the decades.
In a must-read article in The New Yorker (“Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker”, 17 October 2016), David Remnick cites these words from “Anthem” as a kind of leitmotif for Cohen’s avid pursuit of what life has to offer, his anxiety and compassion, and his obsession with religion or, better put, his yearning to make sense of spirituality.
The lines from “Anthem” recall one of the poems in Fleurs du mal (1857), Baudelaire’s startling evocation of the tussle between good and evil. A verse from “La Cloche fêlée” (The Cracked Bell), in its 1954 translation by William Aggeler, reads:
“Happy is the bell which in spite of age
Is vigilant and healthy, and with lusty throat
Faithfully sounds its religious call,
Like an old soldier watching from his tent!”
The image is one that describes Cohen himself, a voice of warning and reason for those disenchanted with religion and who seek off-the-beaten-track answers to the usual suspect questions. Modestly, in the interview “Leonard Cohen Corrects Himself: ‘I Intend to Stick Around Until 120’” (Billboard, 14 October 2016), the singer says:
“I’ve never thought of myself as a religious person. I don’t have any spiritual strategy. I kind of limp along like so many of us do in these realms. Occasionally I’ve felt the grace of another presence in my life, but I can’t build any kind of spiritual structure on that. So I feel that this is a vocabulary that I grew up with. This biblical landscape is very familiar to me, and it’s natural that I use those landmarks as references. Once they were universal references and everybody understood and knew them and located them. That’s no longer the case today, but it is still my landscape. I try to make those references. I try to make sure that they’re not too obscure. But outside of that, I dare not claim anything in the spiritual realm for my own.”
His new album “You Want It Darker” casts a faint light as it explores the shadows that Cohen feels are closing in. The old bell is more distant, but it still rings out, unearthly, unforgiving, unrelenting.