Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen have overseen creative success and longevity that most artists only dream of. The two of them have defied genre, form and convention through any medium they please. Both have published books of fiction and poetry, and are respected as much for their writing as they are for their manifold musical stylings.
The two coincidentally put out new music within weeks of each other, just this month. On September 9th, Cave put out Skeleton Tree, his sixteenth studio album. On September 21st (Leonard’s 82nd Birthday), Cohen released the title track from his 14th upcoming album, ‘You Want it Darker’.
There are eerie similarities surrounding both the context and content of these releases that are hard to ignore. It’s worth noting that Cave and Cohen’s birthdays’ are just a day apart, though Cohen is 23 years older, so I’ll let the astrologers deal with that information. Beyond that, the writing and production of each of these albums came amidst tragedy for both artists.
In July of 2015, Nick Cave’s 15 year old son fell off a Brighton cliff, and died from injuries. In July of this year, Leonard’s Cohen long time love and muse, Marianne Ihlen (subject of ‘So Long, Marianne’), died in Norway, at 82. Leonard expressed his love and gratitude to Marianne in a letter, in what was essentially his first piece of public poetry since 2014’s Popular Problems.
While neither Skeleton Tree nor You Want it Darker were directly inspired by the respective losses, they were written and produced in the time preceding, and the aftermath. Cave has chosen to remain silent on the topic of his son’s passing, instead expressing his feelings through the companion film to the album, One More Time With Feeling.
What comes across on both Cohen’s song and Cave’s album are the stories of two men reaching similarly grim conclusions about God and death after a lifetime of religious seeking. Religion and God have always figured central in Cohen’s life. He was born to practicing Jewish parents, and grew up amidst the heyday of Western interest in Eastern religion. Cohen himself is an ordained Zen monk, though still harbors allegiance to the Jewish faith.
After decades of searching, Cohen has returned to the Old Testament God, as is made clear through the arresting lines in ‘You Want it Darker’. In the opening verse, he growls: “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game / If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame / If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame / You want it darker / We kill the flame”
It’s an anthem of resignation and defeat. In the haunting chorus, Cohen sings, “Hineni, Hineni, I’m ready my lord”, parroting Abraham’s words to God in Genesis, meaning, “here I am.”
Gone is the rosy vision of a loving God in songs like ‘Show me the Place’ and ‘Hallelujah’. In the most stunning line of the song, Cohen muses, “I did not know I had permission, to murder and to maim”, where he overtly challenges the ten commandments and contemplates God’s possible sadism. As Cohen inevitably moves towards the end of this life, he makes no appeal to the sentimentality that might accompany old age.
Cave, on the other hand, has no specific religious denomination but claims to believe in God, saying, “I believe in God in spite of religion” and that he believes in God in terms of “something watching” in his songs. On September 1st, Nick Cave released the opening track to Skeleton Tree, ‘Jesus Alone’. All the signature Cave-isms were there. Fantastical images of mermaids and hummingbirds; death hanging in the air. But something about it felt truer than say, the narrative songs of Murder Ballads. In the song, Cave speaks to a dead loved one, and imagines all the bodies they might have woken up into: A drug addict, an African doctor.
In the emotional refrain, Cave sings, ‘With my voice, I am calling you.’ Themes of reincarnation, the afterlife, and an ambivalent creator, are prevalent throughout the album. In a later verse, Cave announces, ‘you’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator, don’t you see’. In the torturous third track, ‘Girl in Amber’, Cave imagines a young women spinning down a hallway for the rest of time, as her record player spins, and her phone rings, back in the physical world. In a devastating line, Cave admits, “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world / In a slumber til your crumble were absorbed into the earth / Well, I don’t think that any more the phone it rings no more / The song, the song it spins now since nineteen eighty-four.”
They are stark, unapologetic revelations. Cave has since earned himself a reputation as the ‘prince of darkness’, for his obsession with morose subject matter. However, it is clear that these songs are not trying to prove anything, or make any sort of philosophical case. They are just the astonishing scarcity of answers one receives following the mystery of death.
Sustaining a career in the arts for decades, without compromising one’s vision is a nearly impossible feat that only a select few can pull off. If there is a primary culprit in the degeneration of a artists’ output, it is a loss of ambition. A writer settles for easy answers for the sake of putting out content or remaining relevant. Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave have shirked this expectation by confronting mortality in the starkest possible terms. They’ve shown that if you stick around the game long enough, there is insight to be gained. It might not be the comforting insight you expected, but at least it’s the truth.
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