An artist is never really gone. I have been listening to Leonard Cohen’s posthumous Thanks for the Dance. Haunting in the way of Bowie’s Blackstar, there’s a poignancy to listening hard to the dead. Especially when they saw it coming. Artists are never really gone, and we can forgive them because they’re oh so very human. Cohen was an exceptional poet and this album captures a man who knows the end is near. Still he sings of girls and sins and God. There’s an eternal soul there, and Cohen captures longing better than just about anyone. The artist knows longing and understands not knowing for what. The album struggles with religion and depression, a remarkably common combination. Memories of glories that linger even as the body ages.
Listening to someone else’s music is taking a stroll through her or his head. Someone once gave me a disc of songs built around a theme. Although the theme came through I feared a little of what I heard here. Some who know me primarily from my overly pious upbringing would be shocked to find Cohen on my favorites list. For me he has no pretense. Instead of ignoring religion, sexuality, or politics, he tried to make sense of them through song. For me—and listening to music is a very personal thing—I think I understand when I’m drawn into his lyrics. His experience of life was vastly different from what mine has been, yet he’d accurately mapped the direction my mind might wander, if given free rein. Religion will hold your imagination captive, if left to its own devices.
Those who reduce Leonard Cohen to his over-used “Hallelujah” catch only glimpses of this complex man. I once read an article about Bruce Springsteen in which a friend of his said that if he hadn’t succeeded in music he might’ve become a priest. There’s an authenticity to these artists who write probing songs that have deep spirituality yet allow themselves to be human. Cohen’s songs revealed he could see death with some ambivalence from afar. Even in albums recorded thirty years ago the hints were there. Instead of running and attempting to hide, Cohen’s lyrics, at least, indicated that he’d continue to try to live. Maybe these are just the reflections of a middle-aged man who’s only glimpsed a fleeting connection between an artist in perpetual motion and a one-time scholar sitting up alone at 3:00 a.m., seemingly stuck in one place. Whatever else they may be, such quiet moments will ones be haunted by Thanks for the Dance.