3 examples of spiritual content in Cohen’s songwriting, 3/3: You want it darker (2016)

The title track of Cohen’s final album, You Want it Darker (Columbia Records, 2016) is the third and last post detailing how he incorporated spirituality (focussed on the references to Judaism) into his work. This and the preceding two posts refer to Cohen’s 1964 speech at the Montreal Jewish Library. As I mentioned, this is a selection focussed on one set of religious references, only, though his work makes countless references to other religions.

You Want it Darker, as an album, is staggering denouement to a beautiful life and body of work. There are albums and poems by Cohen that don’t resonate much with me, or resonate only over time. He produced  the album in his home studio with his son, Adam, once he had come to terms with his own imminent passing. As I’ve been drawn more to his earlier work, I approached the last album with some trepidation. But it was breathtaking.

There are many great lines in the song, and many obvious references to Judaism, such as his use of “hineni” the Hebrew word Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah used to announce themselves to God. But the references stacked on another and mixed with mention of murder and abandonment registers the ambivalence of his belief (that so much evil and suffering occurs under watch of a higher power). And yet, it doesn’t shake his stalwart tone. In fact, the song uses doubt to produce a confrontation. His use of first person singular in “didn’t know I had permission/to murder and to maim” and then first person plural in lines like “we kill the flame” makes himself the subject or subjects who acts on the world, taking the place of a higher power either on earth or above. My first reaction was that he was staring death in the face with fearlessness that undercuts the sort of reverence and fear of God particularly in the face of the most horrible tragedies which is ritualized in the religion.

Later, discussing the song with a friend, I described as though Cohen is singing his own mourner’s kaddish. And then I realized, like with Who By Fire that the first line of the chorus: “magnified, sanctified be his holy name” is an English translation of that very prayer. This is a prayer for the dead, recited by a mourner daily in Aramaic for 11 months after a loved one dies, and incorporated into religious services. The kaddish never mentions death; instead, it is meant to reinforce one’s devotion to and love of God in spite of one’s grief.

Note that the line that follows the appropriated first line of the kaddish, “vilified, crucified/ in the human frame,” is an overt reference to God as Christ. The following line “a million candles burning / for the help that never came” produces an image of so many inexplicable deaths (along with the kaddish one lights a candle to represent the dead), as in the Holocaust, but left abstract, refers to any mass, avoidable casualty whose existence tests one’s faith.

He underscores his own control over his passage out of the world by employing the men’s choir of the synagogue in whose cemetery he planned to be buried. Shifting from his usual small ensemble of female voices to a full, proper male choir for his last album also marks a departure, and grounds the song with a seriousness not found in other albums. The female voices act as “light” counterpoints to Cohen’s voice, which became darker and darker as he aged; the men underscore and emphasize the darkness instead of providing balance.

At the end, having stared down the higher power and questioned the purpose of the ritual that will follow his death, and even mocks it by reciting it prematurely, and for himself–he submits, but on his own terms, having laid out his doubts and disappointments.

The lyrics follow an embedded youtube video of the audio:

You Want it Darker from the eponymous album, Columbia Records, 2016

Lyrics by Leonard Cohen, music by Patrick Leonard

If you are the dealer

I am out of the game

If you are the healer

I’m broken and lame

If thine is the glory

Then mine must be the shame

You want it darker

We kill the flame

 

Magnified and sanctified

Be Thy Holy Name

Vilified and crucified

In the human frame

A million candles burning

For the help that never came

You want it darker

We kill the flame

 

Hineni Hineni

I’m ready, my Lord

 

There’s a lover in the story

But the story is still the same

There’s a lullaby for suffering

And a paradox to blame

But it’s written in the scriptures

And it’s not some idle claim

You want it darker

We kill the flame

 

They’re lining up the prisoners

The guards are taking aim

I struggled with some demons

They were middle-class and tame

Didn’t know I had permission

To murder and to maim

You want it darker

We kill the flame

 

Hineni Hineni

I’m ready, my Lord

 

Magnified and sanctified

Be Thy Holy Name

Vilified and crucified

In the human frame

A million candles burning

For the love that never came

You want it darker

We kill the flame

 

If you are the dealer

I’m out of the game

If you are the healer

I’m broken and lame

If thine is the glory

Then mine must be the shame

You want it darker

We kill the flame

 

Hineni Hineni

I’m ready, my Lord

Lyrics sourced from The Cohen Files.

Image caption: Joan Snyder, Field of Flowers (1993) monoprint. Photo: Bryan Whitney. Sourced from the New York Times.