Everybody knows the war is over. Everybody knows the good guys lost.
Perhaps no one since Thomas Hardy has matched Leonard Cohen in the dogged persistence of literary bleakness. Cohen’s entry into a Zen monastery in 1996 was a “response to a sense of despair that I’ve always had,” he said in an interview that year. Ten years later, Cohen told Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, “I had a great sense of disorder in my life of chaos, of depression, of distress. And I had no idea where this came from. And the prevailing psychoanalytic explanations at the time didn’t seem to address the things I felt.”
Only a handful of people on the planet have experienced the “life of chaos” Leonard Cohen lived as an acclaimed poet, novelist, singer, and one of the most beloved songwriters of the last several decades. But millions identify with his emotional turmoil. Cohen’s expressions of despair—and of reverence, defiance, love, hatred, and lust—speak across generations, telling truths few of us confess but, just maybe, everybody knows. Cohen’s death last year brought his career back into focus. And despite the mournful occasion for revisiting his work, he may be just the songwriter many of us need right now.
The great themes in Cohen’s work come together in his most famous song, “Hallelujah,” which has, since he first recorded it in 1984 to little notice, become “everybody’s ‘Hallelujah,’” writes Ashley Fetters at The Atlantic, in a succession of covers and interpretations from Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright to Shrek and The X Factor. It is here that the depths of despair and heights of transcendence meet, the sexual and the spiritual reach an accord: “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled,” Cohen has said of the song. “But there are moments when we can… reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.’”
Everybody knows it’s a mess. But it often takes a Leonard Cohen to convince us that—at least sometimes—it’s a beautiful one. If you feel you need more Leonard Cohen in your life, we bring you the playlist above, a complete chronological discography available on Spotify—from the sparse, haunting folk melodies of Cohen’s first album, 1967’s The Songs of Leonard Cohen to last year’s gripping swan song, You Want It Darker. In-between the legendary debut and masterful summation are several live albums, the classics Songs from a Room, Songs of Love and Hate, and others, as well as that odd 1988 album I’m Your Man, in which Cohen set his grim ironies and universal truths to the sounds of eighties synth-pop, intoning over slap bass and drum machine the indelible, gently mocking lyrics he co-wrote with frequent collaborator Sharon Robinson:
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose