How Leonard Cohen Wrote a Love Song

So many songs take love as their top­ic, almost by default, that we hard­ly even think of the “love song” as a dis­tinct type of musi­cal work any­more. And when we do, we often do it out of a desire for alter­na­tives: lyrics and com­po­si­tions of a more com­plex, cere­bral, and icon­ic nature, escapes from the sim­ple paeans to infat­u­a­tion, romance, and cou­ple­hood with which we can eas­i­ly feel fed up. Few singer-song­writ­ers in recent his­to­ry would seem more capa­ble of pro­vid­ing such escapes than Leonard Cohen, who nev­er shied away from look­ing at life (and when the time came, death) straight on, refus­ing to shrink from its infi­nite emo­tion­al chiaroscuro.

But Leonard Cohen, too, wrote love songs now and again. In “How Leonard Cohen Writes a Love Song,” the video essay from Poly­phon­ic above, we learn just how he tack­led that most com­mon of all musi­cal sub­jects with­out aban­don­ing his inim­itable sen­si­bil­i­ty. It first exam­ines Cohen’s song “Suzanne,” which has its ori­gins in a poem he wrote in 1966 and appeared on his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen the fol­low­ing year. Unlike almost all love songs, “Suzanne” deals with a Pla­ton­ic rela­tion­ship, in this case the one between Cohen and a woman with whom he reg­u­lar­ly drank tea and took walks around his native Mon­tre­al.

From “Suzanne” the analy­sis moves on to “Famous Blue Rain­coat” from Cohen’s 1971 album Songs of Love and Hate. The nec­es­sary bal­ance between those forces implied in the album’s title reflects Cohen’s world­view, which in the 1970s led him into an involve­ment with Bud­dhism. But he’d also looked into Sci­en­tol­ogy, which explains the song’s then-cryp­tic ques­tion “Did you ever go clear?” That counts as only one of the many cul­tur­al ref­er­ences with which Cohen lay­ers “Famous Blue Rain­coat,” as he lay­ered so much of his work; even a song osten­si­bly about love was also about much else in the world besides love.

After an unpromis­ing ini­tial release in 1984, “Hal­lelu­jah,” would go on to become Cohen’s sig­na­ture song. (Mal­colm Glad­well tells the sto­ry on his pod­cast Revi­sion­ist His­to­ry). Despite the reli­gious themes on its sur­face, “Hal­lelu­jah” has a deep­er mean­ing, so the video reveals, as a love song, albeit a love song of a mul­ti­va­lent kind. Last comes “I’m Your Man,” the title track from Cohen’s unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly syn­the­siz­er-heavy 1988 album, and itself an unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly love song-like love song. But, in the words of Pitch­fork’s Dori­an Lynksey, it takes its “sen­ti­men­tal clichés — I’m addict­ed to love, I’ll do any­thing for love — to bru­tal extremes.” Though Cohen ulti­mate­ly had to admit his inabil­i­ty to ful­ly under­stand, much less tame, the forces of love, nev­er did he give up try­ing to mas­ter it in song, approach­ing it in all the ways typ­i­cal love songs teach us nev­er to expect.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hal­lelu­jah!: You Can Stream Every Leonard Cohen Album in a 22-Hour Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist (1967–2016)

How Leonard Cohen & David Bowie Faced Death Through Their Art: A Look at Their Final Albums

Say Good­bye to Leonard Cohen Through Some of His Best-Loved Songs: “Hal­lelu­jah,” “Suzanne” and 235 Oth­er Tracks

Hear Leonard Cohen’s Final Inter­view: Record­ed by David Rem­nick of The New York­er

Mal­colm Glad­well on Why Genius Takes Time: A Look at the Mak­ing of Elvis Costello’s “Depor­tee” & Leonard Cohen’s “Hal­lelu­jah”

Lis­ten to Nick Cave’s Lec­ture on the Art of Writ­ing Sub­lime Love Songs (1999)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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