When Leonard Cohen died in November, the world lost more than just a famous singer: he was a poet and novelist from Montreal, a globetrotting cosmopolitan musician, and a Jewish supplicant of startling depth and complexity. As a performer, Cohen’s mind was always his most essential instrument – sharp, worldly, wise, and always a little funnier than you expected. His brilliant lyrics would have won acclaim if married to any voice, but one can’t overstate the importance and effectiveness of his particular voice. For just shy of fifty years, listeners tracked Cohen’s tenor as it shifted from a wry, deadpan whine to an almost comically cavernous bass rumble, like the Ghost of Hanukkahs Yet to Come crooning amusingly morbid pronouncements in five-minute dirges. From album to album, Cohen’s voice simultaneously decayed and bloomed, becoming something surprisingly moving and malleable, even as its gravity pulled his many adopted musical styles into its own orbit.
Spiritually, Cohen was traditional and progressive, displaying a sense of religious literacy uncommon in pop music and also a mile-wide irreverent streak that, true to his Jewish roots, flirted with insouciance without ever becoming truly glib. Cohen’s religious sensibilities and fascinations were obvious, though they were evenly deposited throughout his entire catalogue, without any distinct moment of illumination. The grandson of a rabbi, Leonard Cohen was consistently and resolutely committed to his own strain of Judaism, one he reconciled with his ordination as a Buddhist monk as well as an obvious affection for Jesus (mentioned in many Cohen songs, including “Suzanne,” “Avalanche,” “Passing Through,” “Is This What You Wanted,” “Jazz Police,” “The Future,” and “You Want It Darker”). In Jim Devlin’s Leonard Cohen: In His Own Words, Cohen referred to Jesus as, “the most beautiful guy who ever walked the face of the earth.” Cohen went on to say he believed he had been truly touched by Jesus, a figure of “inhuman generosity,” despite both the traditional Jewish approach to Christ and his own education on the history of Christendom.
After a press tour in which he frequently discussed his own mortality, Leonard Cohen released You Want It Darker, his 14th and final album. The title seemed like a playful threat from an artist often accused of wallowing in sadness, but rather than urbane miserabilism, the album opens with the title track, in which Cohen muses on his bone-tiredness before intoning “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my Lord.” Recalling Abraham, Samuel, and Isaiah, Cohen tapped into his own sense of preparedness and resignation, and also a grand biblical tradition of Jewish men who recognized they were in the presence of the Divine. Throughout the album, he deftly blends the sacred and the profane, referencing the Old and New Testaments, as well as bidding fond, remorseful farewells to old and new lovers. Gone was the gentle defiance of “Hallelujah,” arguably Cohen’s best song, replaced by a knowing sense of loss. Though he seemed certain he would soon meet his Maker, there were still lingering questions of a sort that filled many of his lyrics. He may have been ready to go, but it was now expressed more like “ready or not, here I come,” a realization that his unanswered questions might have unsatisfying answers. Decades earlier, in his 1974 song “Who by Fire,” a reworking of a traditional Yom Kippur prayer, Cohen questioned the Judge of all the earth by inquiring of Him, “And who shall I say is calling?” In the new song “I’m Leaving the Table,” Cohen wearily states, “I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game,” before singing, “If I ever loved you, if I knew your name.”
It’s not for us to know whether or not Cohen’s lifelong appreciation of Jesus ever translated to true faith, if he ever truly knew the Lord of Song he sung about, the holy name he magnified until his final album, but his questions are now settled and his seeking is at an end. Perhaps the many who loved Leonard Cohen and found comfort in his music will ask those same questions and find the solace in God he spent a career publicly seeking. May his memory be a blessing, and may you find an answer to one of Cohen’s most poignant questions: “When they said ‘Repent, repent,’ I wonder what they meant.”