Leonard Cohen (left), film director Lian Lunson, and Bono.
Credit: Brit Marling.
It is said, according to Jewish tradition, that the age of prophets has come to an end. God, having withdrawn from the world, has also withdrawn his voice, leaving humans to stumble along in the dark, bereft of guidance. Notwithstanding these facts, it seems safe to call Leonard Cohen a prophet for the modern world. Cohen, the Canadian-born singer-songwriter who has achieved legendary status for songs like "Bird on a Wire," "Everybody Knows," and "Suzanne," knows it too, making reference to his own chosenness in the career-summing "Tower of Song": "I was born like this/ I had no choice/ I was born with the gift of a golden voice."
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To begin with, Cohen's voice is itself an authoritative instrument. Golden it may not be, but its low, raspy rattle, teetering on the edge of utter tunelessness, is the sound of truth exposed in a wilderness of falsehood. The traditional Cohen song, in its primal state, sets Cohen's speak-singing against the ethereal voices of his female backup singers and the careful, assured picking of guitars. Cohen's prophecy is of impending doom, clothed only in the garb of his formal, biblically tinged language. His subject matter ranges from the purely spiritual to the political, but the result remains the same, especially in his later, gloomier iteration: irreversible chaos and death.
Walter Benjamin once remarked that the storyteller is defined by his wielding that most precious wisdom--the knowledge of death. By that reckoning, Cohen is the prophet as storyteller, his authority stemming from the confidence of his poetry, and his voice. "There's a mighty judgment coming/ but I might be wrong," Cohen sings on "Tower of Song" (1988), but by the time of "The Future" (1992), all doubt has been removed. "Things are going to slide, slide in all directions/ Won't be nothing/ Nothing you can measure anymore/ The blizzard, the blizzard of the world/ has crossed the threshold /and it has overturned/ the order of the soul."
The vision of the future is so bleak, detailed as it is in Cohen's precise, lengthy lyric, that the demons of the past come to seem preferable in comparison: "Give me back the Berlin wall/ give me Stalin and St. Paul/ I've seen the future, brother:/ it is murder." "The Future" is an update of the Book of Revelations for the post-Soviet era of moral confusion.