Last week I wrote about U2 and their new album that came as a free download to iPhone users. Canadian singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen also released a new album last week, available through the usual purchase plans. His thirteenth album, Popular Problems, was released just days after Cohen’s eightieth birthday and it demonstrates his staying power through the decades; a postmodernist at the beginnings of postmodernism, he has stayed the course through his artistic career which began as a poet and has moved through novel- and song-writing as a musician and performer.
I first came across Leonard Cohen as a high school student when I read “Suzanne” in an anthology of modern poetry. It seems that people either really like Cohen’s work or completely dislike it – but there is no denying his durability in the musical world, or the impact of his songs that have been recorded and covered by so many others. In his return tour in 2008, recorded as the Live in London album in the O2 Arena, he pontificates between the songs, saying “I’ve taken a lot of Prozac, Paxil, Welbutrin, Effexor, Ritalin, Focalin. I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies and religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.” He then moves once more into his songs of world-weariness, sung with his deep baritone, the light sounds of the back-up singers, the strings of the accompanying archelaud and organ giving it an almost sacred sound. God is invoked, and religious images abound, but Cohen’s songs do not denote a particular religion; they are drawn from his Jewish roots and filled with the Roman Catholicism that surrounded him in Montreal. While the images are religious, the songs themselves speak of weariness, emptiness, vanity and sometimes foolishness of life.
Listening to Cohen and reading the lyrics of his works, I am reminded of the biblical writer Qoheleth, author of the book of Ecclesiastes found in the Jewish Tanakh, the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. The book of Ecclesiastes is written from the perspective of someone who is older, wiser and who has experienced much of what life has to offer and is weary of it all. The book goes on to set out how much of life is filled with the things that are useless, empty, meaningless, ephemeral. Encouragement is given to enjoy what is in the present, and Qoheleth does not want to abandon wisdom, but to use it to remember to live in the moment and to enjoy the simple pleasures of eating, drinking, relationships, work and the gifts which come from God.
It is easy to label Qoholeth as a cynic, but perhaps he is more of a pragmatist – one who refuses to go through life wearing rose-coloured glasses, but who in the senior years of life has some wisdom about not taking everything seriously and questions what needs to be questions and values what needs to be valued. By the same token, Cohen, in his senior years, can readily be labeled a cynic; but beyond that immediate world-weary despair, cynicism and negativity, there is a depth of reflection that emerges in the poetry, the lyrics, in the music and in Cohen’s own voice – as he laughs at what is foolish, but reminds us to hang on to the things that really matter.
In the album Popular Problems, the song “Slow,” the opening track, he reminds us of the need to live slowly and savour what we have: “I’m slowing down the tune/I never liked it fast/You want to get there soon/I want to get there last.”
In a case of absurdity that perhaps makes the point, when I went to YouTube to play this song, it was preceded by an ad for makeup that “goes on fast” because, as the ad reminded me, “life happens fast!” Unless, we hear the prophetic and musical reminder to slow down.
Ecclesiastes is traditionally read during the Jewish festival of Sukkot, which takes place in October; an agricultural festival in its origins, it is also a reminder of life and its cycles and its fragility and impermanence. Ecclesiastes is read in part to give a reminder to avoid getting caught up in the celebrations to forget the divine source of life and to be grounded in the realities of life. Perhaps, we should also read it at our celebrations of Thanksgiving, or just put some Leonard Cohen on in the background. I think we need the music of Leonard Cohen, like Qoheleth before him, to remind us to put things in perspective, to slow down and live, to face the reality of our own mortality, but not to forget to live in the meantime and appreciate the food we eat, the relationships we enjoy and perhaps the sunlight streaming in through stained glass.