Leonard Cohen’s Hymns for Sinners

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On “Suzanne,” the first song from Leonard Cohen’s debut album, Cohen positions Jesus Christ as a “broken” and “forsaken” figure who watches “drowning men” from a “lonely wood tower.” Cohen’s messiah is a cypher for longing and solitude — a totem for the lovesick and desperate. As a metaphor, it might seem bizarre, or even blasphemous, but twisting the sacred and profane into odd, interloping configurations became Cohen’s modus operandi for the next five decades. His most famous composition, “Hallelujah,” refashions the biblical story of David and Bathsheba into a tale of sexual obsession and, ultimately, spiritual transcendence; while the late-period classic “Show Me the Way” is a meditation on mortality that is addressed to either a savior or a dominatrix (or maybe both). For Cohen, faith is a complicated thing, but it’s ultimately humanistic and forgiving; it doesn’t seek to judge the transgressions of the sinner as much it attempts to understand our failures by chipping away at our ideals of divinity. It interjects tragedy into the holy order, and adds a whiff of squalor to the sacred spaces. It bridges the gap between heaven and earth. — Sam Chennault