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Leonard Cohen has spent decades claiming that he is a kind of soldier. On tour in the 1970s, he would dress in field jackets and a beret, styling his backing band “the Army” and himself “Field Commander Cohen.” In 1973, he flew to Israel to enlist in the IDF during the Yom Kippur War. Sent instead to raise troop morale with his guitar, Cohen sang for Ariel Sharon and his tank crews as “the Nightingale of the Sinai.” 

But this self-fashioning began before the 70s and continued in the decades that followed. We’ve known, from songs like “The Partisan,” The Old Revolution,” ”Joan of Arc,,” “A Singer Must Die,” “The Captain,” and “First We Take Manhattan” that his side has lost whatever war it was fighting, but that he has still survived—as a POW or a partisan hidden behind enemy lines, fantasizing about future reversals—writing his “manual for living with defeat.”

Somehow, it took until the Canadian poet-novelist-folksinger turned 80 for him to reveal that the war and soldier he admires are very, very old—even older than we might have suspected: in Popular Problems, Cohen condemns those who side with “militias” or “put on a uniform / To fight the Civil War.” He’ll take his stand unaffiliated as an Elijah in flight from the armies of Ahab and Jezebel.

Cohen’s twelfth studio album, released in September, is at once his most and least Cohenesque. I found myself not simply tapping my foot to his music—but nodding my head and rapping my fingers along my desk, an experience I never thought I’d have (and certainly not enjoy). Yet the old themes are all there, above all the ability to simultaneously address pleas to himself, his lovers, his God, and his listeners. We hear it in the first words he growls:

I’m slowing down the tune
I never liked it fast
You want to get there soon
I want to get there last.

He could be talking about sex; he could be joking about slowing the pace of his own aging; or warning his audience about the reduction of his singing voice to a deep, slow whisper. (He’s talking about all of these, of course.)

But he’s also announcing the beginning of a sustained critique of the world he sees around him, for the first time casting himself explicitly in the role of prophet who has “had the invitation / That a sinner can’t refuse”—in an explicit retort to the atheism and loss of wonder that follows from the self-certainty of “the great professor / Of all there is to know.” The tune moves too fast: when nothing is permanent, everything is devalued.

In the third track, he stands against the culture around him like Samson, rejecting the “woman in the window / And a bed in Tinsel Town” for the chance to “take this / temple down.” The only thing it values is a combat which leaves him in the ruins of “A Street“—the ruins, that is, of neighborhood and community. Catching sight of “the Ghost of Culture / With numbers on his wrist,” he suggests to his interlocutors that they “Salute some new conclusion / Which all of us have missed.” Haunted, still, by the Holocaust, Cohen suggests that the desperate rush for newness—and blindness toward the value of “old ideas” (of that which moves slowly)—is what has followed to fill the void of the values it shattered.

Cohen has struggled against the rush toward the biggest, the newest, the most appealing for much of his career. He was a decade older than his contemporaries in the folk music scene. Until Old Ideas (2012), his highest-charting album was his first. Despite including his best-known work, the oft-covered “Hallelujah,” Sony initially declined to release Various Positions (1984) in the United States. Even today, he comes onstage dressed for a Saturday walk to shul and plays a cheap synthesizer. The album artwork for Popular Problems is ten photographs of Cohen in the process of shining his shoes.

Even while he was still drugging himself with narcotics and women, Cohen wrote songs condemning both the ineffectiveness and self-centeredness of his habits. But these were only a more focused iteration of a more pervasive and willing blindness. In the thirteen raw minutes of “Please Don’t Pass Me By (A Disgrace)“ he casts the state of the human soul as that of a blind, neglected beggar on a city street corner. Taunting his audience that they think the pleas of the song’s chorus don’t apply to them, he promises them, chanting repeatedly, “that one day / You’re going to get down on your knees” with nothing to do but sing it. In another song from the 1970s, he screams (quoting Isaiah) that “There are no grapes upon the vine” in a country where Charles Manson, dressed as an abortionist, is “the revolution’s pride.”

We rush to reap whirlwinds, Cohen has been insisting for over forty years now, because our own selfishness makes us afraid of the small, still voice that proclaims, as Cohen does in “Born in Chains”:  “Blessed is the Name / The Name be praised.”

These words are a constant but minor presence in traditional Jewish liturgy, the perpetually mumbled or whispered response of the congregation. Their Yiddishized equivalent—brokhashem—is still the response to good news or, simply, the question, “How are you?” among many Orthodox Jews.

A variant of the formula Cohen’s prophetic partisan exists to perpetuate—“Blessed be the Name of His Kingdom forever and ever”—were the words announced by the High Priest and the crowds around him on Yom Kippur during the Temple-era to proclaim the most joyous day of the year, when God’s mercy was evident and actual. This is the formula Cohen’s prophetic partisan exists to perpetuate. He only stands athwart history yelling, “Slow!” to make sure we can hear him if and when he mumbles.

More on: Leonard Cohen, Music

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