After this week’s passing of Leonard Cohen, at 82, some people joked about the singer, songwriter, and poet's opportunism. “Leonard Cohen has died and his timing, as ever, is perfect,” wrote The New Statesman. “RIP Leonard Cohen. He got out just in time,” Marc Maron tweeted.
There's a surface layer to that humor, but the connection runs deeper, as well. Many of the Canadian artist’s fans are pointing out how Cohen seemingly predicted 2016’s awfulness in his lyrics, especially those who see the upcoming Trump presidency as a sign of the apocalypse. For decades, up until the album he released just three weeks ago, You Wanted It Darker, Cohen wrote about demagoguery, fear, war, evil, and myriad other emotions and issues on the minds of countless listeners around the world right now. Sometimes the references were explicit; other times they were woven into metaphors involving romance and religion. These are 11 such songs, which speak the state of humanity to an often eerie degree.
“Story of Isaac”
Inspired by the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac — about a father commanded to sacrifice his son as a test of faith, only for the child to ultimately be spared — this track appears on Cohen’s second album, 1969’s Songs From a Room. Given the times, people have interpreted the song to be a protest against the Vietnam War (“I will help you if I must / I will kill you if I can / And mercy on our uniform / Man of peace or man of war”), but Cohen later said it was a broader point about ideology and human nature.
“We'll get some idea — some magnificent idea — that we're willing to sacrifice each other for," he said during a 1988 radio interview. "It doesn't necessarily have to involve an opponent or an ideology, but human beings being what they are, we're always going to set up people to die for some absurd situation that we define as important."
“Lover Lover Lover”
During a trip to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Cohen, who was raised Jewish and later became a Buddhist monk, supposedly wrote this as a message for the troops on both sides of the conflict. (Others claim that it was purely for the Israeli soldiers.)
“I said, ‘father change my name / The one I'm using now it's covered up / With fear and filth and cowardice and shame,’” he sang, probably not knowing that tensions in the Middle East would persist throughout the rest of his life, that he’d face boycotts in Israel and the West Bank 35 years after initially releasing the song, and that anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiments would be so prevalent in 2016.
Or maybe he did know, since the final verse includes: "And may the spirit of this song / May it rise up pure and free. / May it be a shield for you / A shield against the enemy."
“A Singer Must Die”
Ever felt attacked, criticized, or wrongly understood when you’ve put an opinion out there, for what and whom you support, maybe the way you looked? That’s how Cohen was feeling when he wrote this song, from 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony. “I wrote from the feeling of being on trial — everyone's on trial,” he said. “In every living room there's a trial going on, in every bedroom there's a trial going on, not just in the courtrooms, not just in the jails, but in the most private places of our lives, yeah, we subject each other to judgement and to trial.”
If you’re of the many feeling that the result of the election means the world is doomed, and that voter suppression was one of the reasons he won, the opening to this song will seem ominously visionary.
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded / Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed / Everybody knows the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost / Everybody knows the fight was fixed / The poor stay poor, the rich get rich / That's how it goes / Everybody knows
He once introduced it in concert by saying, “Here's a terrible new song. Yes, it embodies all my darkest thoughts. Here it comes.”
Cohen says “let’s get it over with” about the apocalypse on the title track of his 1992 album. There’s drugs, sex, murder, destruction, and even this wish for abortion: “Destroy another fetus now / We don't like children anyhow.” The future is murder, and “things are going to slide.”
Does this sound familiar? “It sounds like the situation that we have now and the attitudes that are taken there which are all extremist, which are all defensive in the extreme,” he said then. “Seem to be the mental landscape the people are, strolling through today. There is no comfort at the center. In fact, there is no center.”
Calling this Future cut "optimistic" would be a huge stretch, but Cohen’s message is similar to many Clinton supporters who are saying, “Okay, we lost, but now we have to get out there and fight.” Saying the world was a dismal place when he wrote this, Cohen sings, “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in.”
In ‘92 interview, he elaborated: “This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, nor in your work, nor anything, nor your love of God, nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect. And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together, physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that's where the light gets in, and that's where the resurrection is and that's where the return, that's where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.”
Written in 1988 but only released four years later after Cohen discarded dozens of versions, the only refrain here is, “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.” He didn’t want to make a point about the current state of the country or take a political side so much as remind Americans that things can get better.
“It was occasioned by the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It is a song where there's no inside and no outside. This is just the life of the democracy. It isn't imposed from above. It isn't connected to a Democratic victory or a Republican victory. It's coming through a hole in the wall, it's coming through a crack, it's coming imperial, mysterious in amorous array. It is the religion of the West. It's just starting.”
After an eight-year span between studio albums, Cohen returned in 2012 with Old Ideas, often focusing on mortality. Here, he’s at his most despairing. “I caught the darkness / Drinking from your cup / I said: Is this contagious? / You said: Just drink it up.” He’s got no future, and “the present’s not that pleasant.” Sound like some of the malaise that’s spreading all around this year?
“Almost Like the Blues”
Cohen was about to turn 80 when Popular Problems came out, in 2014, and he hadn’t lost a step when it came to bleak lyrics:
“I saw some people starving / There was murder, there was rape / Their villages were burning / They were trying to escape.”
It gets worse from there, though he admits he can’t just turn into a frozen-hearted nihilist — there’s still some feeling there, “and it’s almost like the blues.”
Here, Cohen mixes his metaphors about love and a spouse who leaves the narrator and their baby to join a militia. There’s slight hope that they might reunite someday, but Cohen is realistic about the nation crumbling into another Holocaust, and himself being “Just an extra in the sequel, to the old red-white-and-blue,” where he sees “the ghost of culture with some numbers on his wrist.”
“You Want It Darker”
Cohen knew time was running out, but he still had to put himself in the larger context of the world and spirituality. He did so on the title track of his final album, combining Holocaust imagery, his pending death, and myriad Judeo-Christian references:
They're lining up the prisoners / And the guards are taking aim / I struggled with some demons / They were middle-class and tame / I didn't know I had permission / to murder and to maim / You want it darker / We kill the flame.
Quite the good-bye to all of us.