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Sex, spirituality and dark thoughts: a serious look at Leonard Cohen’s lyrics

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Canadian singer Leonard Cohen performs at Madison Square Garden in New York in 2012

Canadian singer Leonard Cohen performs at Madison Square Garden in New York in 2012

Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius by Harry Freeman

Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius by Harry Freeman

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Canadian singer Leonard Cohen performs at Madison Square Garden in New York in 2012

Leonard Cohen was an outlier on the rock circuit. As red-blooded and prone to drug use as any of his contemporaries, his soft-spoken humility meant he didn’t repel the older generations. You could take him home to your mother and grandmother, and they might even attempt to steal him from you. Having undergone a childhood steeped in Jewish studies, religion was a constant influence on his poetry and his lyrics.

Harry Freedman, an author on Jewish culture, has timed this book to be released on the fifth anniversary of Cohen’s death. Fluidly written, it might seem a little dry and fusty at first. However, the breadth of Freedman’s erudition is impressive. And ultimately he is an insightful guide to the many religious references in Cohen’s back catalogue.

This is by no means a warts-and-all exploration of Cohen’s life via his lyrics. Freedman mostly stays within the remit of the religious origins of the songs apart, from some glancing references to juicy happenings in Cohen’s biography — like Phil Spector pulling a gun on Cohen, Cohen’s dabbling with acid and speed and the time he goose-stepped and shouted “Sieg heil”, enraging an audience in Hamburg. These incidents are merely for context.

Freedman does a commendable job of tracing the myriad allusions to religious texts in Cohen’s lyrics. He was someone who wanted to draw on tradition but not be stultified by it. Embracing the old and the new, he also didn’t want to be hamstrung by only one faith. Both a buddhist monk in a monastery for a decade and a writer of psalms, Cohen was restless and ever-searching when it came to his religious education. He tussled with his faith and, on such songs as The Butcher, even levelled accusations of cruelty against God for allowing atrocities such as the Holocaust.

Even though he embraced many religions, he bridled at those rabbis teaching in a formulaic fashion, resigned to dissipation. Where was their passion?

To Cohen, this passion is reached through eroticism. Sex is a sacrament. He treats the erotic with a reverential awe. For the most part, there’s nothing sordid about his depictions of sex. As he put it: “If you leave God out of sex, it becomes pornographic; if you leave sex out of God, it becomes self-righteous.” Freedman says “there is no blasphemy in intimacy... Procreation, as the Kabbalah asserts, is a holy act.”

Freedman is not absolutist. He refrains from getting into the weeds of Cohen’s personal life. By not tying down the meaning of the songs, he leaves them open to interpretation, like all great poetry.

As well as some lesser-known songs, many classics are explored. Who By Fire is based on synagogue liturgy, imaging how death might come. Drawing from the Kabbalah, Anthem depicts the necessary brokenness in the world — “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in”. And of course, there’s a close inspection of the punishingly ubiquitous Hallelujah, which was a great song before The X Factor decimated our enthusiasm for it. This song dwells on the insufficiency of faith, and the spiritual qualities of the erotic.

Tortured imagery

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Occasionally, some analyses of the earlier lyrics leave us none the wiser. Freedman can be a bit too hesitant, a little too respectful to permit himself a hot take. That said, this opacity might reflect Cohen’s malaise when writing. Some of his imagery during his depressive phases can be tortured and knotted, and never more so than on Songs of Love and Hate — “If any of his albums justified the epithet ‘music to commit suicide by’, this was the one”, writes Freedman. Cohen said “depression isn’t just the blues... It’s a kind of mental violence which stops you from functioning properly.”

Thankfully, late in life, that seemingly insoluble depression lifted. Cohen’s lyrics became more clear-eyed and generous in their straightforwardness — this is not to say that their meanings were any less multifaceted, but rather that the execution was cleaner.

Freedman comes into his own in the last chapter of the book, entitled ‘Prayer’, particularly when dealing with the beautiful hymn-like lyrics of the optimistic Come Healing and the shudderingly acquiescent You Want It Darker, in which Cohen intuits and accepts his close-at-hand death.

With mortality bearing down upon him, he had no choice but to reduce everything to its essence. Freedman’s clarity in analysis mirrors Cohen’s own here.

Freedman has shone a light on the inspiration behind these songs. Much could have remained in darkness without him.

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Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius by Harry Freeman

Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius by Harry Freeman

Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius by Harry Freeman

Music: Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius by Harry Freedman
Bloomsbury, 288 pages, hardcover, €26.59; e-book £9.59


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