How Leonard Cohen Sought Out Spiritual Truth Through His Songs
British author and journalist Harry Freedman first conceived of the idea for his new book, Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius (Bloombsbury), while driving along the A40 highway in the United Kingdom, where he lives. Suddenly, “Hallelujah,” a song written by Cohen for his 1984 album Various Positions that’s since become an often-covered secular hymn, came on the radio. “For some reason I listened more carefully than I usually do, and I realized that he was singing about the Bible story of King David committing adultery,” Freedman says. “I thought, This guy is singing about things you don’t normally hear.”
Freedman, who’s written extensively about Jewish culture and history, soon recognized that lines in many tracks written by the late Canadian singer-songwriter allude to Christian, Jewish (and Kabbalah) passages. “He was a seeker of spiritual truth,” Freedman says of Cohen, who was raised in a practicing Jewish family and, over the course of his life, showed interest in Christianity and other faiths. At one point, he lived in a Zen monastery and was ordained as a Buddhist monk.
In the book, Freedman gives insight to the traditions that inform Cohen’s sometimes opaque lyrics, which borrow freely from various religious writings. The author points out that “By the Rivers Dark,” for example, uses the city of Babylon from the biblical Book of Revelations as a metaphor for what Cohen doesn’t like in the world. In “You Want It Darker,” Cohen sings the Hebrew word hineni, which means “here I am’” and is used only in moments of utter surrender, when someone is giving themselves up to God. (The song was, poignantly, released 17 days before Cohen’s death in 2016.)
Freedman recently made us a playlist that demonstrates Cohen’s poetic references to sacred texts in his songs. Upon recognizing them in the tracks, listeners—including the artist’s most devoted fans—might understand the lyrics, and Cohen himself, in ways they hadn’t before. “He had a connection to spirituality that is far greater than any of ours,” Freedman says.
Listen to Freedman’s Leonard Cohen playlist on Spotify.