Retrospective Review of "Songs of Leonard Cohen"
Sex and the Sacred
Fifty years ago, Leonard Cohen shocked the world by mixing the language of sex with the language of religion. But was he the first person ever to do that?
Genre: folk • soft rock
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The Songs of Leonard Cohen
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Sex and the Sacred: A Retrospective Album Review of Songs of Leonard Cohen
This is a transcript of Ep. 16 of the What's This Album About? podcast - listen here
Hi, everybody! In this episode of What’s This Album About?, we’ll be looking at a songwriter whose mouth my mom definitely would have washed out with soap. He didn’t cuss much, but he frequently wrote about sex in religious terms. And that is something my mom definitely would not have approved of. I’m Bobby Waller, and I’m pleased as punch to announce that the very first retro episode of What’s This Album About? commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of a debut album called The Songs of Leonard Cohen.
♪ So long, Marianne
It's time we began
To laugh and cry and cry and laugh
About it all again
The Songs of Leonard Cohen was released on December 27, 1967, exactly fifty years ago this week. It kicked off one of the world’s most celebrated songwriting careers, even though, in a lot of ways, it was pretty unlikely to do so.
For one thing, Cohen jumped into the music game at a considerably older age than most of the other big-name countercultural songwriters of the 1960s. While Bob Dylan had released his first album at age 20
♪ I am a man of constant sorrow
Leonard Cohen released his debut album at 33. On top of that, Cohen’s music wasn’t exactly mainstream. At a time when the pumped-up sounds of psychedelia were king,
♪ Don't you want somebody to love
Cohen was releasing songs like this one.
♪ I love you in the morning
Our kisses deep and warm
Your hair upon the pillow
Like a sleepy golden storm
This is Track 7, one of the singles, titled “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” and, as you can hear, it’s pretty subdued—purposefully low-fi with not much more that a nylon-string guitar and a voice—and not even a very melodious voice. At a time when pop music was placing more and more emphasis on musicality, with Jimi Hendrix emerging as a guitar virtuoso , the Beatles composing for string quartet, and the Beach Boys creating groundbreaking new harmonies, Leonard Cohen could barely carry a tune.
So what made it work? With so many strikes against it, how did The Songs of Leonard Cohen set Cohen on the path to musical stardom? The answer, quite simply, is the songwriting.
♪ I heard of the saint who had loved you
So I studied all night in his school
He taught that the duty of lovers
Is to tarnish the Golden Rule
Already an established poet outside of musical circles, Cohen brought a distinct authorial voice to The Songs of Leonard Cohen. His songs were authentic, sincere, deeply personal—even confessional. He writes in first person about things that really happened to him.
And yet, judging by the vast number of artists who have covered songs from this album---artists like Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Nina Simone, The Chieftains, Roberta Flack, John Cale, Sting, Cold Play, Springsteen, Brandi Carlisle, Beck, Suzanne Vega, Petrol Emotion, the list goes on--it would appear that Cohen, despite the highly personal nature of his writing, managed to articulate something bigger than himself. And he did so partially by tapping into lexicons that were readily available and decidedly appealing to a large number of people. Most notably, he was profoundly conversant in the lexicons of sexuality and religion.
Take Track 1, the lead single, “Suzanne,” for example.
♪ Suzanne takes you down
To her place near the rive
You can hear the boats go by
And you can spend the night beside her
In the first verse, we are introduced to Suzanne, a magnetic figure who leads the narrator to “her place by the river”—the river, of course, being a place of sanctification in the lexicon of Christianity.
♪ I’m gonna lay down my heavy load down by the riverside, down by the riverside, down by the riverside!
A few notes to point out here: One is that, although Cohen was Jewish and strongly influenced by his Jewish roots, he also grew up in the largely Catholic city of Montreal and developed a profound love for Christian music, symbols, and imagery. Another is that, although both Cohen and the real-life Suzanne (Suzanne Verdal McCallister) deny having had sex, it’s clear that there is a sexual component to Cohen’s attraction to her—as when he sings…
♪ And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover
Notice that Cohen describes himself not as a friend or confidante to Suzanne but as a “lover.”
And just in case we didn’t catch the religious undertones of the first verse, in the second verse they're no longer undertones. They're pretty explicit.
♪ And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
Now the focus is Jesus, who Cohen depicts as comparable to Suzanne. Both are figures of compassion who transform whoever comes to them. In the first verse, Cohen comes to Suzanne with the intention of denying the love he has, but she effortlessly brings it out in him. In the second verse, Jesus ministers to the “drowning men” who he says “will be sailors then until the sea shall free them.”
Notice, by the way, how both Suzanne and Jesus are aligned with the forces of nature—and with water in particular. Suzanne “lets the river” tell Cohen that he has always been her lover, and Jesus lets the sea free the drowning men. These are powerful images of baptism, and they are Cohen’s way of saying that his attraction to Suzanne was both sexual and spiritual in nature.
But is that even possible? Can a feeling be both sexual and spiritual at the same time? Certainly not in the religion I grew up in. I was clearly told that sex and religion don’t mix. Sex is physical, while religion is spiritual Sex is vulgar, while religion, at least true religion anyway, is pure.
For many years, I accepted unquestioningly that sexual impulses were antithetical to spiritual impulses—which, by the way, made for a pretty long and tortured adolescence. But then a friend introduced me to the songs of Leonard Cohen, and for the first time in my life, I heard the radical suggestion that sexual ecstasy and spiritual ecstasy—far from being incompatible—actually spring from the same source.
This was a very liberating message for a pent-up Protestant kid like myself, and it felt like the dawn of an idea no human being had ever had before. But was it really that new? Was Leonard Cohen the first person ever to combine the language of sex and the language of religion?
How beautiful and pleasant you are,
O loved one, with all your delights!
This is The Song of Solomon.
Your stature is like a palm tree,
And your breasts are like its clusters.
I say I will climb the palm tree
And lay hold of its fruit.
Oh may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
And the scent of your breath like apples,
And your mouth[b] like the best wine.
The Song of Solomon, sometimes know as Solomon’s Song or The Song of Songs, is a book that appears in the Jewish scriptures known as the Tanakh, which was later adopted by Christianity where it became known as the Old Testament. I grew up in a very Bible-centered religion, but I don’t remember ever having been encouraged to read The Song of Solomon. And as an adult, I can see why. It’s pretty steamy.
The Song of Solomon is a dialogue between two lovers who eagerly anticipat e physical contact with one another. In Judaism, this overtly sexual dialogue is often understood to be a metaphorical dialogue between God and Israel. Christians, meanwhile, have often read it as a dialogue between Christ and the Church. But no matter how you interpret it, you can’t deny that’s it’s pretty sexual… and spiritually relevant. You also can’t deny that it’s really, really old—somewhere between two and three thousand years old. So, clearly, Leonard Cohen was not the first person in history to combine the lexicon of sex with the lexicon of the spirit.
He did, however, do it particularly well. Let’s listen to Track 5, “The Sisters of Mercy.”
♪ Oh, the Sisters of Mercy, they are not departed or gone
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on
In the liner notes of 1975’s The Best of Leonard Cohen, Cohen explains that this song recounts a real-life sexual encounter he had with two women—yes, simultaneously. He refers to them as “sisters of mercy,” coopting the name of an order of Catholic nuns who are traditionally known for their acts of charity. In doing so, Cohen signifies that this experience with these “sisters” was a spiritual healing and not merely carnal. He seems genuinely admire the “sisters,” particularly their ability to give freely without attachment or possession, as well as their ability to bring that same attitude of non-attachment out in him.
♪ And it won’t make me jealous if I hear that they’ve sweetened your night
We weren’t lovers lack that and, besides, it would still be alright
The particular virtue of the “sisters of mercy” is that they are able to administer their comfort, as Cohen puts it, without the entanglements that frequently accompany sexual relationships. As a testament to Cohen’s humility, however, he doesn’t pretend to be above the fray of human drama. In fact, most of the album’s songs are about relationships that are fraught with entanglements and dysfunction.
Consider Track 2, “Master Song,” for example. Cohen sings to a former lover who has left him for another man. A man Cohen refers to critically as her "master." She apparently attempts to be gracious with Cohen, but does so in a condescending way. Cohen's response is this:
♪ Your master took you traveling
Well, at least that’s what you said
And now do you come back to bring
Your prisoner wine and bread?
Notice how Cohen refers to himself as her “prisoner” and to his ex-lover’s condescending offering as “wine and bread.” But of course, in the lexicon of arts and literature, the typical meal of a prisoner is not wine and bread; it’s water and bread. Wine and bread is what gets consumed in the Christian sacrament of communion. By using religious language here, Cohen gives the events surrounding this dysfunctional relationship greater import. They are not trivial matters; they’re affairs of the soul that emanate from and affect those involved at the deepest core of their being.
But despite his frank and sometimes biting observations of his own dysfunctional relationships, Cohen’s saving grace is that he ultimately manages to find the good in his experience. While Dylan had recently brought the break-up song to new levels of pure unadulterated bitterness,
♪ You got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend
Cohen was comparing Suzanne to Jesus himself—magnetic, charitable, redemptive—and admiring the “sisters of mercy” for lacking attachment and for giving of themselves without fear of being diminished.
The difference between Dylan and Cohen often boils down to the difference between irreverence and reverence. Don’t get me wrong. We need irreverence because rebels like Dylan shake things up. Why honor what doesn’t deserve to be honored? But after tearing things down, it’s good to still have things to look up to. And Cohen’s writing is full of admiration. Divine awe is just as available to us today as it was to our ancient forbears. And no matter how heavily the entanglements of our modern lives may weigh on our often weary souls, if we look close enough, we’ll see that the agents of mercy are still among us.
♪ Oh, the Sisters of Mercy, they are not departed or gone
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on
And they brought me their comfort
And later they brought me their song
Oh I hope you run into them
You who've been traveling so long
Thanks for listening to the first-ever retro edition of What’s This Album About? Shout outs to Linda Easton to being a great webmaster, co-producer, and now a contributor of great vocal effects. If you like what we do here at What’s This Album About?, tell a friend about it. It’ll help us a lot. Until next time, I’m Bobby Waller reminding you to look for the agents of mercy in your life. And keep your ears open because the more you listen,