Leonard Cohen and the Art of the Love Song

Fifteen years ago this week, Nick Cave gave a lecture to the Vienna Poetry Festival called “The Secret Life of the Love Song.” It’s worth reading in its entirety, because it’s a fascinating insight into the process of songwriting, but I’m bringing it up today because over the course of the lecture, Cave mentions Leonard Cohen precisely once. He does so in the context of discussing the concept of duende: “All love songs must contain duende,” he says, “because the love song is never simply happy… Contemporary rock music seems less inclined to have at its soul, restless and quivering, the sadness that [Federico García] Lorca talks about. Excitement, often, anger, sometimes — but true sadness, rarely. Bob Dylan has always had it. Leonard Cohen deals specifically with it.”

Along with perhaps half of The Boatman’s Call, the lecture’s probably the best thing to come out of Cave’s piano balladeer period, and it’s never more on point than when it addresses Cohen’s work. Because that’s exactly what Leonard Cohen’s songs have done for the best part of half a century, from the very first song of his debut album (that’d be “Suzanne,” if you’re wondering) through to the very last song of his new album, Popular Problems. They deal with the sadness at the heart of love.

As Andrew Solomon wrote in his marvelous book on depression, The Noonday Demon, “Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.” People have called Cohen depressing for decades, but really, it’s not a matter of being deliberately morose — it’s a matter of depicting love as it really is, as a source of pleasure and pain, fear and longing, devotion and surrender.

The last point is important, because being in a capital-R Relationship inevitably involves the surrender of some part of yourself, a sort of self-immolation to the greater concept of coupledom. Imagery to this effect appears throughout Cohen’s lyrics — perhaps the most memorable is “Joan of Arc” from Songs of Love and Hate, where Joan surrenders herself to the blaze that consumes her, a fire that is depicted as a lover and a killer. “I saw her wince, I saw her cry,” Cohen sings, “I saw the glory in her eyes/ Myself, I long for love and light/ But must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?”

The answer, it seems, is that yes, it must. And anyway, it’s not like you get to choose: as Cohen sang on Ten New Songs‘ “Here It Is” (a great crush song, don’t you know), “I am not the one who loves/ It’s love that chooses me.” And just like you’re powerless to refuse its consequences, you’re also powerless to refuse its call. You’re like — drum roll, please — a bird on a wire. There ain’t no cure. You’re caught. And all you can do is surrender.

The concept of surrender has also appeared throughout Cohen’s career in a religious sense, and this abundance of religious imagery is no accident, because if there are unambiguous declarations of love and devotion in Cohen’s lyrics, they’re usually saved for God — an interesting topic in and of itself, given how fluid (or “insecure,” as he put it last week) his theological position has been over the years. The gorgeous “The Faith,” from Dear Heather, reads like a series of appeals to some omnipotent creator, to whom Cohen refers to as… yes, “love.”

And, of course, these two forms of devotion — the sacred and the profane — overlap constantly. The Future‘s “Light As the Breeze,” perhaps music’s most poetic declaration of a fondness for cunnilingus, compares kneeling to perform that particular act to kneeling to pray. It’s a double entendre of which our hero is rather fond — seriously, see how often “kneeling” turns up in Cohen’s lyrics, and how often it can be read in, ahem, other ways, then giggle like a schoolboy. Elsewhere, the lines blur completely — “If It Be Your Will,” from Various Positions, could be a declaration of love or a declaration of religious devotion. Either way, its narrator is entirely at the mercy of the object of his love: “Let your mercy spill/ On all these burning hearts in hell/ If it be your will/ To make us well.”

Happily, these themes remain as strong as ever on Popular Problems — even as he enters his ninth decade on Earth, love remains a source of both frustration and delight. The gorgeous “Me Oh My” is a model of understatement, a whole story written in words that recall Hemingway’s famous six-word story: “Held you for a little while/ Drove you to the station/ Never asked you why/ All the boys are waving/ Trying to catch your eye.” The very last words he leaves us with, on an album which may or may nor be his last (apparently he has another one half-made!) go like this: “You got me singing like a prisoner in a jail/ You got me singing like my pardon’s in the mail/ You got me wishing our little love would last/ You got me thinking like those people of the past.”

There’s plenty to unpack here for Cohen fans — the “prisoner in a jail” line rather recalls “Bird On a Wire,” and the “people of the past” line is the sort of wink and a nod our hero likes to give to his forebears — but the point is that despite his reputation as a Lothario and one of our greatest lyricists, Leonard Cohen doesn’t really write straight-up love songs. He never has. And thank god for that, really. When you think about it, it’s kinda depressing how much of our popular culture is given to reinforcing a sort of weird aspirational type of love that doesn’t really exist for the vast majority of people — love at first sight, undying devotion, living happily ever after.

That’s not the sort of love you find in Leonard Cohen songs. What he deals with is far more complicated, and far more confusing, and far more real. And ultimately, that’s what poetry and art are for: not to depict a fantasy world, but to give us some essential insight into the world in which we live. Very few artists have done it as well as Leonard Cohen does.