Thursday, May 7, 2020
!!! A+ RECORDING !!!
The news of Leonard Cohen's death in 2016 broke one day after Donald Trump's election to the United States presidency; however, his life had actually ended three days earlier. Cohen breathed his last unaware that fascism was coming to power in his adopted country -- or perhaps it's just as likely that he knew it was going to happen before any of the rest of us did. The following Saturday, the wheezing Baby Boomer relic that was NBC's zombie sketch comedy Saturday Night Live -- which had embraced Trump as a guest host one year prior but now feigned outrage at his empowerment -- opened with Kate McKinnon, dressed up in her signature role as Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, incongruously singing Cohen's "Hallelujah" at a piano, intended apparently simultaneously as a tribute to Cohen and an uninquisitive requiem for the failures of the Clinton campaign. "I'm not giving up," she announced at the end, "and neither should you." Giving up what, one wondered, along with what degree of good fortune gave her the option to make that decision.
"Hallelujah" is a song from Cohen's 1984 album Various Positions that he never really recorded properly apart from some fine live performances; it became more famous (and more publicly palatable) in reverent covers by a wide range of sullen singer-songwriters ranging from John Cale to Rufus Wainwright to Jeff Buckley, enhancing its simplistic beauty while robbing it of Cohen's swagger, and ultimately became Cohen's signature track, replacing his debut single "Suzanne" as the one song of his that people broadly tended to be familiar with. If SNL's producers had really wanted to tip their hats to Cohen and give a taste of his worldview while coalescing with a snapshot of a nation and world that now sat on some incomprehensible precipice, they might well have had McKinnon take to the bench to croon "The Future" instead.
Whereas "Hallelujah," at least in the more familiar versions, traffics in biblical imagery and the not uncommon Cohen ideal of passionate trembling before beauty -- though not absent of wit or cynicism, it is a song of reverence -- "The Future" is a song about the world crumbling, a prophecy in which the singer is so traumatized by what he has seen laying ahead ("I've seen the future, baby, it is murder") that he pleads the universe for a return to what we once thought were catastrophes and tragedies (from the crack epidemic to the Berlin Wall) because "things are gonna slide in all directions" and soon, there "won't be nothing you can measure anymore." Though not dissimilar in affect from the pessimism exhibited in 1988's "Everybody Knows," which similarly forecast a surveillance state and a class aware that the end was nigh and intending to ignore it, "The Future" feels less paranoid, more directly angry, more matter-of-fact. Like a coolheaded Johnny Rotten, Cohen locks into a groove and runs down the chaos, madness and genocide of the years to come: pestilence, misery, systemized warfare, the dominance of the sneering, a world on fire, Charles Manson as artistic influence, white men dancing, and all traces of organic life sucked into a black hole, beauty and truth along with them -- the only survivors the cockroaches, human and non, who will use what's left to act out de Sade.
It sounds like a news report from a couple of years from now, and Cohen felt comfortable not hedging his bets because he was aware that the things clarified by the Vietnam War, deregulation, fundamentalism made his visions all but inevitable. It's likely that the song's prescience will outlive all of us. (In fact, if people keep going to the fucking park in the middle of a goddamn pandemic, it almost certainly will.) So imagine, for a moment, McKinnon taking to the airwaves on November 11th, 2016 on a live feed -- a less meaningful action than it was a few decades ago, but at least she'd be knocking a few comfortably aging marrieds onto their fainting couches -- and spitting this out, actually confronting the reality of what Donald Trump's election represented but did not originate, and then crying out "live from New York, it's Saturday night." Would it have been a revolutionary gesture? Of course not. We're fucked no matter what our "satirists" say on the TV. But it would have been something more than a comforting lie, and it would have been perceptive and challenging and deliriously funny, and would have made Cohen (himself sick to death of "Hallelujah" by 2009) smile from beyond; it would also have been the only actually meaningful response. Anything else, like what actually happened on the air, is pablum from airheads.
If Cohen had never recorded another album, as was perhaps intended at the time, The Future could well have stood as his final and most lingering statement: the articulation of an entire worldview in all its inherent contradictions, each facet confronted with a full and unwavering focus. This thorny and uncompromising record that was released when he was 58, over twenty years after the beginning of his career as a folk singer, will conspicuously dominate any list of his greatest achievements in songwriting. In a discography with multiple peaks, it is the peak, the one in which his every whim is so inspired and his instincts serve him so well that it nearly feels criminal he can sound so relaxed about it all.
It is not merely on "The Future" itself that he confronts the dread of reality, the doom of the forthcoming, but on "Waiting for the Miracle" -- his most convincing electronic groove slow-burn aside from "Everybody Knows" -- and "Closing Time," both among his most extraordinary songs, he somehow manages to find a way to greet and embrace inevitability as a glorious counterpart to life itself. "Miracle" is seduced by a latter-day love affair with a mixture of gratitude and resignation, with no ecstatic promise beyond the experience of a shared decline, in which Cohen spots a distinct kind of lustful dignity: "we've been alone to long / let's be alone together / let's see if we're that strong." Apocalypse still hangs over it all; he shares no expectations of joy, but finds something that merits survival. Thriving amid unyielding disaster is also the theme of "Closing Time," which could well be Cohen's most evocative lyric of all; it is certainly the prime example of song in which he has a great deal to say and uses every possible moment to do so, never wasting a single word. In the manner of the greatest poets the lyrics create their own music, to which he seems to respond almost incidentally:
So we struggle and we stagger
Down the snakes and up the ladder
To the tower where the blessed hours chime
And I swear it happened just like this:
A sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
The gates of love, they budged an inch
I can't say much has happened since
But closing time
Cohen's singing, aged and more ragged even than on I'm Your Man, the album on which he finally shed his old troubador voice once and for all, and frankly more so than on his work within the first several years of his 2000s comeback, welds itself to this melody and lyric. There are several points on this album, the title cut included, when he seems like never before to be enjoying the all but unrelated rhythms and tin-can grooves surrounding him, leaning into his hipster old-man persona a bit in a way that's both indulgent and earned, therefore totally forgivable and charming. That sudden subservience to even heavily processed and artificial music, much (but not all) of it played by other people, marks the final phase of Cohen's transition from a traditional singer-songwriter format, a changeover that began with Death of a Ladies Man and had almost taken complete hold with Various Positions... but which here, at last, he seems to fully and unabashedly embrace. One assumes that's the reason the album contains a cover -- for the first time on a studio LP (discarding Cohen's arrangement of "The Lost Canadian" on Recent Songs) since "The Partisan" in 1971; and not even just one cover, but two -- and is the only Cohen record to contain an instrumental, his own ambient piece "Tacoma Trailer."
It's also why it's significant when Cohen clearly feels so strongly about the words to "Closing Time" that he seems, at a few points in the song, to be completely overtaken with passion, thoroughly destroying the apathy with which he began the evening and laying down some of the most moving vocals of his career while audibly straining (and succeeding) to overwhelm the very acquired-taste canned country sound that surrounds his words and music. Listen to his voice on the lines "there's a voice that sounds like God to me," or "we're lonely, we're romantic," or the song's thesis statement, "I lift my glass to the awful truth / which you can't reveal to the ears of youth / except to say it isn't worth a dime." Though he's drowned out by the female chorus just afterward, the lyrics that follow those lines are among the most irresistibly rendered in the catalog:
And the whole damn place goes crazy twice
And it's once for the devil and it's once for Christ
But the boss don't like these dizzy heights
We're busted in the blinding lights
Of closing time
It's no controversial statement that Cohen is among the few performers in the rock or pop or folk idioms who can make you swoon or completely thrill you with a masterful turn of phrase, the way Cole Porter or Irving Berlin once did. The clear contemporary analogue is Bob Dylan, but during this period when Dylan wasn't writing much of anything, Cohen was at some sort of zenith as a writer and lyricist. No one else would conjure up a stanza like "it's coming from the sorrow in the street, the holy places where the races meet / from the homicidal bitching that goes down in every kitchen / to determine who will serve and who will eat." That's from the album's most sharply satiric song "Democracy," the deadpan-sarcastic flipside to "The Future"'s snarling fatalism, which catalogs the emptiness of political transformation in a country with as dark a past as the United States, democracy rising up "from the fires of the homeless, from the ashes of the gay." In all the song's flagrant Churchill-quoting heralding of a new age, one could mistake it for a sincere bow to the hope of upheaval in the 1992 elections, but for the last verse wherein -- again prophetically -- he lays out the situation in which all of us are truly and forever stuck:
I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can't stand the scene
And I'm neither left or right
I'm just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
But I'm stubborn as those garbage bags
That time cannot decay
I'm junk but I'm still holding up
This little wild bouquet
Yet casting this as an album -- or a career -- that is about lyrics would be short-sighted. The thinness of the production on Cohen's albums of this period, which made them sound slick and anonymous at the time, terribly dated a few years later and now impenetrably cool yet locked in fleeting style, is beside the point not just because the words and ideas are masterful but because the melodies, the singing, the performances are. Cohen does much more than just deliver the songs like some Brill Building demo artist, which unfortunately is more or less his legacy in some quarters. (But then, the same is true of Dylan; how many people have tried to tell you he's no singer?) The range of emotions on I'm Your Man was already extraordinary, romantic or broken as often as confidently mysterious, but it deepens across the spectrum here. Cohen was in a fresh relationship during the writing of the album, and this sparks an embrace of sensuality that remains infectious all these years later. His own composition "Light as the Breeze" is his most relaxed and wise celebration of the flesh, while he finds a considerable undercurrent of romance and carnality in his lovely version of Marlena Shaw's "Be for Real" (written by Frederick Knight, thanked by name in the recording itself) and an astoundingly funky breakdown of Irving Berlin's "Always." (On that last performance, the microphones for the backup singers are left on and mixed at full volume throughout, so that the listener can be privy to their firsthand responses to Cohen's vocals.) Even "Waiting for the Miracle," for all its shrouding of darkness, possesses a slinky and impressively bottom-heavy groove that addicts and remains welcome for seven full minutes.
All the love and sex that colors this experience of course is an intentional counterpoint to the bleakness that pervades The Future, but neither matter tempers the other, nor is it meant to. When he announces on "Closing Time" that "the awful truth" is nothing finally worth uncovering, it is a resignation that feels like a celebration, the same kind of contradiction as "looks like freedom but it feels like death." Cohen is acknowledging the misdirection and folly of being young while suggesting it constitutes a cycle of inevitability whose crushing disappointments are worth experiencing as much as bemoaning. In "The Future," his pronouncement that "love's the only engine of survival" is a plea for sanity at the same time that it's a retreat, a back turned deliberately toward a world in chaos; perhaps he meant the line as a statement that love could conceivably incite redemption for the doomed and miserable, but its more pertinent application seems to be in the quest is to subsume and preoccupy oneself with matters like those in "Always" and the abandon that's lifting the whole bar off the ground in "Closing Time."
In these ways the record feels exactly like the rebuke of modernism and civilization it would ultimately turn into, whether it was consciously intended as such at the time or not. The begrudging optimism on "Anthem," the album's most reverently beautiful and hopeful song, is of course a balm after a fashion; it's comforted so many since its release with its hymn-like chorus reminding us that "there is a crack in everything / that's how the light gets in." But just as much of the song feels like the final parting shot of someone who has realized the cycle to which we have surrendered ourselves offers no conceivable escape, or as Cohen put it two decades earlier, "carries no survivors." The holy dove "is never free," he now tells us, and he lends censure to "that lawless crowd" and "the killers in high places [who] say their prayers out loud." It is a statement less, finally, of faith than one of clarity, because like the "Democracy" narrator who doesn't leave home on election night, it's a suggestion that our destiny, regardless of what we conceive of as our power, is in the hands of those with no interest in our continued existence. The crack won't expand; it's just all we really have to look for. In Cohen's eyes we are all Kenji Mizoguchi's aged concubine in The Life of Oharu whose life is a cascading procession of tragedies, rejections and losses: as the planet goes up in flames around us, the only path is detachment: a true merging with the darkness.
When we say "detachment" here it means more than just sounding cool while singing about the 1992 post-Rodney King riots; it means a oneness with nothing. In Buddhism, Taoism and other Eastern religions it is the renunciation of suffering through the rejection of expectation. The Future certainly does not renounce lust within its text, but its embrace of cheerful frivolity does amount to an analogy for the unresolvable limitations of physical life. The world is so mad that it causes Cohen essentially to go quiet, to parrot the words of Irving Berlin and then to offer no words whatsoever -- and these choices have the feel of a protective wall. Separation from thought, therefore separation from harm, therefore peace are tenets of Zen Buddhism; after The Future, Cohen would retreat to the San Gabriel Mountains and become an ordained Zen Buddhist monk, as the student of Kyozan Joshu Sasaki (who would ultimately be accused of inappropriate sexual conduct, which is implied in Cohen's Book of Longing to have precipitated his exit from the temple). It lasted around five years before the life of a Monk became intolerable for him, but that it happened at all tells us much about Cohen's mindset in this era. Looking back today, it's hard to disagree when taking in the full breadth of our reality that there is no "way out," only the chance of a walled-off, thoughtless existence: Nekkhamma.
But even this creates ethical concerns for the wrestling that are unanswerable, including the inconsistencies that manifest on this record: how can love be "the only engine of survival" if the only path to perfection requires the repudiation of all pleasure and sensuality? That's why The Future is not an illustration of a philosophy, spiritual or otherwise, but the representation of a worried mind in totality, within and without the context of violent unrest. In the years to follow, riddled with the travails of a crooked accountant, disillusionment with life in the Mt. Baldy Zen Center, and an unexpected outpouring of creativity, Cohen would return and continue writing and touring until his death. He was destined to waver at times from the kind of harshly focused messaging of this album and its unapologetic embrace of anger, hedonism and grace all at once, but the individual records he would eventually issue afterward each seem like a further, if not closer, examination of some tenet within this one, their conflicts forever dangling. He's no longer here for whatever guidance he'd probably refuse to offer, but maybe it would behoove us all to remember in this moment -- and presumably for the moments that remain -- that the only logical answer to anything that confronts us as people or as a society may be the lack of an answer. We could do worse, though, that the one prompted on "Light as the Breeze" by a lover and her body: "for something like a second," he sings, "I'm cured and my heart is at ease." We've seen the future, yes, but it mustn't be all that we see.