Holding Onto Leonard Cohen’s Sacred, Profane Legacy

11.11.16 3 weeks ago

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Leonard Cohen died last night at the age of 82. If you only knew him as the songwriter behind “Hallelujah,” or even if you didn’t know he was the one who wrote that song, Cohen’s work is more necessary than ever given his ability to slash through the transparencies of religion, power, and sex with a single barbed phrase.

Earlier this year, our own Steven Hyden asked listeners not to send Cohen off to his grave too soon, even if the elderly songwriter had made it clear he was ready to go. Now that he’s gone, Hyden’s assertion that Cohen’s last three albums — 2012’s Old Ideas, 2014’s Popular Ideas, and You Want It Darker from just a few weeks ago — are some of the best in his 14-album, nearly 50-year span rings even truer.

Perhaps the only solace we can take in Leonard Cohen’s passing is that he openly wanted to die. Not the death wish of a dramatist or a depressive, but that of a very old man who’d had his fill of this thing we call life. With his art, he explored every corner of spirituality and sexuality, and through that work, he helped listeners do the same. He was unrepentant in the way that he interrogated the mythology of God, morality, and the afterlife. He’d been to the depths of loneliness and back, achieved countless honors, and loved hard.

Cohen ascribed to no fixed set of hierarchies, and instead formed his own, touching on moments of singular vulnerability and statewide corruption with equal grace. After all, “Hallelujah” is a song that repurposes a cry of Jewish celebration into a reflection on love’s darker, more desperate moments; he turned the chorus’ description of music theory into a universal cry, a Biblical king’s sins into an existential commentary on love’s futility — and the corruption of those in power.

He will be mourned deeply in a year already marked by the tragic loss of other musical heroes like David Bowie, Prince, and Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest.

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