That line, by itself, is one of the great feats of lyric writing in pop music. There, right on the words as they’re being sung, the music actually moves the way the lyrics dictate, evoking its own separate, elegiac theme. In life’s great undulating journeys we all know the small sorrows and subtle buoyancies that shape our days, our years, our memories. The song, of course, is Leonard Cohen’s masterwork “Hallelujah”. In this singular phrase, we witness a microscopic flare of genius, supernova bright, delicate as a smile shared with a stranger.
It’s okay to wince when you think of Leonard Cohen’s music. Even with his final album released at the end of 2016, his sound is decidedly not of today and the heavy handed synths he used in the last 30 years of his protean career don’t help place him in the best musical company. But don’t leave. Stay for the poetry. Stay for the smarts. Stay for the soul.
Cohen searched relentlessly. A troubadour, his power comes more as a sparkling source of emotional probity mixed with deep cultural frission. Where “The Leonard Cohen Experience” might make many in the mainstream feel a little awkward when suffused by his emotionally exposed expressions, his influence on the world of ideas cannot be overstated. As an artist, his greatest influence might be that he influenced so many other artists.
The constant theme of his work, from written line to growled lyric and beyond, must certainly be his obsession with, well, let’s call it a well developed interest in women. The guy was horny—there’s no other way to put it—but the stories he spins and the emotions he exudes resonate. Audiences tend not to snicker. They get it. They feel it. You’d have to be half dead not to understand the pain of romantic loss, the transcendence of romantic love, the challenges and chances and risks and rewards, or in other words, “…the minor fall, the major lift…”
So, sex. Love too, but really: it’s sex.
But it’s really not sex. It’s the bigger thing, the reason we look for someone, need someone, want someone. It’s the romance of living that sex implies. Cohen is trying to figure out why the day is always such a big space, and how—how possibly!—can a thinking person figure out his or her place in it. In pursuit of exquisite shared feelings with someone else he asks if there’s any way at all to preserve those feelings so that they answer bigger questions about where this is all going, or what this all means. What’s the “this”, you ask? This…is everything. Your life. Your family. Your friendships. Your life’s labor. Your deepest, most intimate loves. He says in his song “Sisters of Mercy”
Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control.
It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul.
Well I've been where you're hanging, I think I can see how you're pinned:
When you're not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you've sinned.
A few years ago I had an experience listening to recordings of Leonard Cohen in a decidedly atypical place. While flying with a hotshot team of NASA researchers on an expedition over Antarctica I piped a handful of his songs through a noise-cancelling aviation headset, my eyes fixed on the infinite white horizon out the airplane window.
Certainly this is one of the most unlikely places to consider Cohen's meditative verse, and the ragged audio fidelity of my circumstances didn’t hold me for long. But an expedition like this can present travelers with long hours alone in his or her own thoughts. Beneath the aircraft an endless expanse of inhospitable frozen world passed, presenting deadly but beautiful terrain without another person for hundreds of miles. The only thing separating those of us in the airplane from certain doom was the fragile metal shell in which we were riding. The experience alone was extraordinary, full of poetry and wonder and feelings of rare, exquisite adventure.
Listening there, staring off into the bright endless white void of Antarctica, Cohen’s words made so much sense. With the flowering of all new love affairs, isn't that precisely that same extraordinary exquisiteness everyone feels? You can’t take your eyes off the risky new world you’ve discovered, living and breathing right next to you. The wonder of it all and the fullness of feeling like you’re not alone in a frozen expanse lifts a person like nothing else.
But then, much like an exotic adventure starting to approach its end, more quotidian realities inevitably set in. You know it's going to happen; the constant expanse of days always win, full of ordinary obligations and socks on the floor and dishes in the sink. Even in the most loving relationship, real life has a way of dissolving that supernatural feeling, provokes you to wonder if you’ll feel the same way you did when it all started. It asks if you can survive down on the ice, and since you know you can’t, you wonder if it’s possible to preserve that initial power of embrace that launched you at the beginning. Alas, nothing lasts. Nothing lasts, but we try anyway. We try and we persevere and some of us wouldn’t have it any other way.
Listening to Leonard Cohen while flying high above that improbable Antarctic expanse, romance as a practical consideration was as far away as inhabited continents. To look out the window at the imposing landscape was to provoke considerations of inevitable eternity. But then there’s the realization of extraordinary circumstance: we were flying in a lonely research jet above the surface of Antarctica. It was the adventure of a lifetime. There was an innate romance to the journey, amplified by rare opportunity juxtaposed against dread and thrill. It couldn't last, it wouldn't last, but in the moment life felt vibrant and bright. It felt like new love, beautiful and perilous at the same time. One considers how it all happened and suddenly there’s Cohen’s sterling clarity in that superb line, "...the minor fall, the major lift."