This is the first in a series of posts considering the question, “What makes a song a Leonard Cohen song?” The answer, it turns out, is simpler than one might expect. Notwithstanding the requirements implicitly set forth by the spate of publications explicating Leonard Cohen’s corpus, one can comprehend the key elements and organizing principles of his songs — the DNA of his music — without a mastery of arcane poetics, kabbalistic allusions, biographical details of Cohen’s life, musicological theory, mythological lore, or the geopolitical nuances of Canada, Greece, and Los Angeles.
This post focuses on the underlying theme of Cohen’s songs: embracing the predicament.
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Embracing The Predicament
Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive.
This is our human predicament and the only consolation is embracing it.
If Leonard Cohen has a secret recipe for songwriting, it begins, “Start with a well formed human predicament …” In support of this hypothesis, I offer the testimony of — Mr Leonard Cohen [all bolding mine].
In discussing lyricists he admires and in whose style he has modeled himself, Cohen repeatedly points to their ability to present their predicaments, whether he was describing the poet of duende, Federico García Lorca:
[Lorca] was the first poet who really touched me. I remember coming upon a book of his when I was fifteen or sixteen, and the universe he revealed and the lands he inhabited seemed very familiar. I think that’s what you look for when you read poetry; you look for someone to illuminate a landscape that you thought you alone walked on. Lorca did that for me. Of course I don’t read him in Spanish, but still, the language, the precision, the daring, the boldness of his imagery, and the open-hearted approach to his own predicament couldn’t help but touch me at that time.
… country music legend, George Jones:
Have you heard George Jones’ last record, Cold Hard Truth? I love to hear an old guy laying out his situation. He has the best voice in America.
… “the great genius of darkest Hollywood,” Phil Spector:
I was always attracted to his [Phil Spector's] earlier work: ‘Unchained Melody,’ ‘Lovin’ Feelin.’ In those songs you could hear the predicament of the central story-teller.
… or the group in general:
I liked those singers who would just lay out their predicament and tell their story, and I thought I could be one of those guys.
Cohen even manages a predicament-relevant shout-out to Jesus Christ:
As I understand it, into the heart of every Christian, Christ comes, and Christ goes. When, by his Grace, the landscape of the heart becomes vast and deep and limitless, then Christ makes His abode in that graceful heart, and His Will prevails. The experience is recognized as Peace. In the absence of this experience much activity arises, divisions of ever sort. Outside of the organizational enterprise, which some applaud and some mistrust, stands the figure of Jesus, nailed to a human predicament, summoning the heart to comprehend its own suffering by dissolving itself in a radical confession of hospitality.
According to Cohen, in fact,
… the practice of religion [is] the gathering of people to articulate the burden of their predicament
Leonard Cohen straightforwardly explains specific songs in terms of the predicament:
A lot of people ask me about that song ["There Is A War"], but a lot of people forget that the last line of every verse is, ‘Let’s get back to the war’. Of course, there’s all kinds of conflicts between men and women, rich and poor, all kinds of castes and classes. I talk of getting back to the war meaning that we have to throw ourselves into the predicament. If we are willing to get into it, to confront it, that’s one of the ways through it.
["The Traitor"] was about the feeling that we have of betraying some mission that we were mandated to fulfill, and being unable to fulfill it. And then coming to understand that the real mandate was not to fulfill it, and that the deeper courage was to stand guiltless in the predicament in which you found yourself.
Speaking about The Future album in 1993, Cohen tells an interviewer,
One idea on my new record is that the human predicament has no solution. We were tossed out of the garden; this isn’t paradise. And to look for perfect solutions is a very difficult burden to bear. That’s my theme: It’s a mess — thank God.
And, he sets out his overall mission as a function of the predicament:
That’s the question I ask myself about all my material at a certain point: is it really true? It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s a successful metaphor; what matters is whether it honestly reflects my predicament.
I consider a lot of my work to be a kind of reportage, trying to make a completely accurate description of the interior predicament.
There are still more Cohen interviews with references to predicaments, but those not persuaded by ten such examples aren’t likely to be convinced by 100. So, let’s move along.
Terminology: Predicament Vs Problem
Google offers a representative definition of “predicament:”
An unpleasantly difficult, perplexing, or dangerous situation.
Key to Cohen’s use of “predicament” is how it differs from “problem,” which is defined by Google as
A matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.
The distinction between the two concepts is the notion that a problem — unlike a predicament — can potentially be “dealt with and overcome.”
A number of business consultants and pop psychologists have, in fact, created a cottage industry by distinguishing between the two terms. This excerpt from an article advising those involved in agri-business about stress reduction is typical:
To reduce stress, it’s important to recognize the difference between a predicament and a problem… A predicament is something over which we have no control. A problem is something over which we have control… When we accept the predicaments in our lives, we free up energy to solve the problems within our control.
“Dilemma,” a related word sometimes used by Cohen, is, for the purposes of this post, a subset of “problem” in that, as Google has it, a dilemma is
A situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, esp. equally undesirable ones.
In this example, Leonard Cohen uses “dilemma” as defined (i.e., a choice between two or more alternatives):
I originally wrote the lyrics [of Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On] in an Italian restaurant in the Village. It reflects a dilemma.
On the other hand, he occasionally uses “dilemma” as a synonym for “predicament,” as in this case:
That’s everyone’s dilemma: At the times we think we’re coolest, what everyone else sees is a guy with his mouth full of banana.
In that following quotation by Leonard Cohen, I would argue that the situation he labels a “dilemma” is revealed to actually be a predicament disguised as a dilemma since one resolves it not by making the correct choice but by “abandon[ing]” it:
The sexual embrace is beyond self. You don’t exist as you. Your partner doesn’t exist as your partner. That is the place we all come from. Then we come back to life. That zero or emptiness or absolute is when we don’t have any questions. The self we have is just the result of a question. The question is who am I? So we invent a self, a personality. We sustain it, we create rules for it. When you stop asking those questions in those moments of grace, as soon as the question is not asked and the dilemma is dissolved or abandoned, then the true self or absolute self rushes in.
The Significance Of Leonard Cohen’s Predicament
At this point, it is legitimate (and convenient) to raise the inquiry, “Does it necessarily follow from Leonard Cohen’s repeated references to the human predicament in interviews that dealing with that predicament is actually the prevailing theme of his songs?”
And, the answer is — well, of course not. But, Cohen’s compelling description of this motif made over the years and its importance to him does establish a strong presumptive case. At the least, Leonard Cohen’s recurrent references to the human predicament indicate he is mindful of that idea, which is itself a useful bit of knowledge.
For example, Cohen’s identification of himself as a singer in the European story-telling tradition gains significance when we understand that the story being told is that of the human predicament.
There is a whole tradition of music where you just want to hear the man telling a story as authentically as you can. That is why there is a place for singers like me. Leonard Cohen
I have occasionally thought about the differences in my audiences. I think that maybe my music fits into the European tradition. America has its own version of the blues. What I do is the European blues. That is, the soul music of that sensibility – White Soul. Even though Europe has its own version of bubblegum
Similarly, Cohen’s pervasive focus on his — and our — predicament informs our interpretation of his comment about George Jones,
I love to hear an old guy laying out his situation,
leading us to infer that “his situation” is “his predicament.” The same concept holds for Cohen’s declaration, referring to hearing Alberta Hunter perform at 82:
I love to hear an old singer lay it out. And I’d like to be one of them.
Cohen’s fascination with the human predicament synchronizes nicely with his veneration of performers, including George Jones and Alberta Hunter, whose songs are invested with age and experience. Consider this poignant and articulate expression of Leonard Cohen’s personal goal as a singer from an interview after his Dec 1, 1974 show at the Bottom Line:
If one’s health holds out, then doing this [singing at concerts] forever would be marvelous. To really bring the information of the older ages – you don’t hear that on the concert stage. Maybe we’ll be able to hear John Lennon in 40 years on his experience of maturity. That’s what I’d like to hear and that’s what I’d like to be. Every man should try to become an elder.
Who is, after all, better qualified to offer advice on one’s predicament than someone speaking from the perspective of old age?
Awareness of the central role of the predicament in Cohen’s songs affords insight into the means by which his style resonates so strongly with so many listeners – he evokes our predicament by articulating his own predicament.
Centering his songs on his predicament allows Cohen to achieve the authenticity necessary to reach his audience. The quotation I’ve called Leonard Cohen’s Implicit Declaration Of Universality follows:
I can’t believe that my predicament is unique.
The predicament is also key to Cohen’s offer of consolation in answering the question, “How does one respond to a predicament that has no solution?” Cohen puts the query more elegantly:
This is the real human predicament. This universe is only to be tolerated, it’s not to be solved. All these things are unclear but amidst this incredible lack of clarity we have to act. That’s what the whole tragic vision is about.
Cohen can thus engage that population of individuals who have some awareness, however inchoate, of their own predicaments across a wide spectrum of specific included issues.
The same principle clarifies what might be termed Cohen’s doctrine of selective hopelessness:
I think those descriptions of me are quite inappropriate to the gravity of the predicament that faces us all. I’ve always been free from hope. It’s never been one of my great solaces. I feel that more and more we’re invited to make ourselves strong and cheerful. I think that it was Ben Jonson who said, I have studied all the theologies and all the philosophies, but cheerfulness keeps breaking through.
That notion itself transforms into Cohen’s broken Hallelujah:
Finally there’s no conflict between things, finally everything is reconciled but not where we live. This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess and that’s what I mean by Hallelujah. That regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say ‘Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.’ And you can’t reconcile it in any other way except in that position of total surrender, total affirmation.
Leonard Cohen Songs – Not Just Another Pretty Predicament
Now, a songwriter (or a poet or a novelist) taking the human predicament as his or her core subject is hardly unusual. It is, in fact, pretty standard fare. Efforts to limn the human predicament include works as diverse as “The Song Of Solomon,” “The Iliad,” “Figaro,” “Amazing Grace,” “The Lotos-Eaters,” “Is That All There Is?” and “The Serenity Prayer.”
The recognition that Cohen constructs his songs around his predicament is necessary but sufficient to the understanding of the formulation that makes those songs unique — in other words, what it is that makes a song a Leonard Cohen song. To comprehend the complete model, we must also consider both Cohen’s perception and his presentation of his predicament.
Not coincidentally, those elements will be the basis of the next installments in this series.
Credit Due Department: Photo by Antonio Olmo.