Note: This post, originally published July 24, 2014 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric, is an entry in a series of essays considering the question, “What makes a song a Leonard Cohen song?” An introduction and links to all published posts in the series can be found at Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: Summary Page.
The Ultimate Goal: Resonance
As discussed previously, Leonard Cohen takes great stock in the transformative properties of the art of songwriting:
A cry of pain in itself is just that. It can affect you or you can turn away from it. But a piece of work that treats the experience that produced the cry of pain is a different matter altogether. The cry is transformed, alchemised, by the work by a certain objectivity which doesn’t surrender the emotion but gives it form. That’s the difference between life and art.1
The question then arises, “What is the purpose of this transformation?” The raison d’etre of Cohen’s songwriting and his performance style, the goal of this transformation wrought by the craftsmanship and tradition of art is resonance with both the listener and the songwriter. Without resonance, songs are no more than catchy slogans.
It’s just how they resonate [that makes a lyric good]. You know they resonate with a truth that is hard to locate but which is operating with some force in your life. I often feel that about a Dylan song or a song even with Edith Piaf…the words are going too fast for me to really understand them in French but you feel that they are talking about something that is true, that you can’t locate by yourself and someone has located it for you and you just feel like you’ve put in the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle for that moment. That a moment has been clarified. The moment that you’re in at the moment that you’re listening to it. Yeah, the pieces fit…Isn’t that wonderful when all the pieces fit?2
It’s hard to make a commentary [on A Thousand Kisses deep], because you’ve worked so long establishing exactly the right resonance for every single line, the commentaries are more spontaneous and ill-thought.3
“I don’t have to develop an articulated position on politics, Canadian or universal. I am already embraced by the Almighty. I am already embraced by cultures, many cultures. My work is to stay alive and raw to the kinds of voices that are speaking to me continually and to turn them into a voice that I can understand, that I can cling to, and that I can stand behind.4
Cohen, in fact, views syllogistic arguments as counterproductive:
I think you work out something. I wouldn’t call them ideas. I think ideas are what you want to get rid of. I don’t really like songs with ideas. They tend to become slogans. They tend to be on the right side of things: ecology or vegetarianism or antiwar. All these are wonderful ideas but I like to work on a song until those slogans, as wonderful as they are and as wholesome as the ideas they promote are, dissolve into deeper convictions of the heart. I never set out to write a didactic song. It’s just my experience. All I’ve got to put in a song is my own experience.5
The most obvious examples of this sort of transformation are songs such as “The Future” that conjoin seemingly disparate lyrics and melodies in a manner that captures the listener’s attention and promotes intuitive understanding to produce resonance:
I mean, if I’d just nailed this lyric [“The Future”] to the Church door, like Martin Luther, it might be a cause for some trembling and menace; but, the fact is, it’s married to a hot little dance track. So, you’re going to dance your way through “The Future.” You’re going to dance your way through the whole record because the groove is honoured.6,7
The Power Of Resonance
Because resonance trumps ideas in Leonard Cohen’s songs, his music escapes temporal, intellectual, and political restrictions:
Songs are quite hospitable to different interpretations … You can bring a certain kind of nobility to a depressed lyric, or you can deliver a very affirmative statement like a lamentation … There’s a certain emptiness to my songs that allows for a lot of interpretations.8
I don’t have to have a song called ‘Give Peace a Chance.’ I could write a song about conflict and, if I sang it in a peaceful way, then it would have the same message. I don’t like these slogan writers.9
Resonance As End Point
Leonard Cohen uses his skills and the tools of his art to craft songs that are in a harmonic relationship with his audience such that individuals respond with similar sensations, creating feeling of deep empathy, understanding, and comfort.
And that’s what makes a song a Leonard Cohen song.
This concludes the series: Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song
Credit Due Department: Photo by Ted McDonnell
- Suffering For Fan And Profit – The Return Of Leonard Cohen by Mick Brown. Sounds: July 3 1976, Accessed 26 April 2014 at LeonardCohenFiles. Bolding mine. [↩]
- To Lian Lunson, 2005, quoted in 12 of Leonard Cohen’s Most Fascinating Quotes by Vi-An Nguyen. Parade: May 2, 2014 [↩]
- Our Poet of the Apocalypse by Brian D. Johnson. Maclean’s: Oct 15, 2001. Bolding mine] [↩]
- Leonard Cohen: A Portrait in First Person. Interviewer: Moses Znaimer. CBC, 1988. [↩]
- Leonard Cohen: ‘All I’ve got to put in a song is my own experience’ by Dorian Lynskey. The Guardian: Jan 19, 2010. [↩]
- Leonard Cohen’s The Future Interview by Bob Mackowitz. Transcript from a radio special produced by Interviews Unlimited for Sony Music, 1992. The transcript was prepared by Judith Fitzgerald. [↩]
- Similarly, in “Everybody Knows,” Cohen lists the horrid facts of contemporary life, i.e., the dice are loaded, the good guys lost … all set in jaunty quatrains [↩]
- Conversations from a Room By Tom Chaffin. Canadian Forum: August/September 1983. [↩]
- Cohen Regrets by Alastair Pirrie. Beat Patrol: December 30, 2008. [Originally written for the New Musical Express: March 10, 1973.] [↩]