A week of songs: day two

OK, so thanks to the Facebook chain post doing the rounds, I’m doing that song-a-day-for-a-week thing where I post a song I like and write a bit about it. You should do it too, eh? (Seriously, if you like the post, go write your own, and tell me in the comments, as I’d like to read your picks.)

This is day two. My pick for day two is a song I first heard – or more correctly, first paid attention to – when it featured on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.

(Fun author fact the first: I went on a fairly disastrous first date while in first year at university to a double feature – Natural Born Killers and A Clockwork Orange – at the old Valhalla cinema in Glebe. It ended in a very arts student way, with long discussions in a cemetery. The next weekend, the person in question told me they’d started taking heroin. Coincidence? I THINK NOT.)

Anyway, I was a literature student when I saw the movie, and I couldn’t believe it was Cohen, at first. I mean, I’d flogged the arse out of his Best Of album for years, as anyone vaguely interested in poetry and being a mopey arts student was wont to do, and this was a world away from fingerpicked guitars and tea and oranges that come all the way from China. 

I know The Future wasn’t the first synth-heavy album Cohen made – there’d been synths on Various Positions, and very much through I’m Your Man – but it certainly was the one that made an impact on me, because it was so different. It sort of was much more fuck you than the rest of his work I’d heard. It underscored that the music is really secondary to the words. The music is just a framework upon which the real work is hung.

The enduring image that comes with this song for me is of Cohen standing up at a karaoke night; the music is almost cover-version, unobtrusive and providing a frame for his dark ruminations. It’s almost laughable, at least until he speaks. And the lyrics: of course Stone used a song with the hook “I’ve seen the future, brother: it is murder” in it.

While there’d been hopelessness in the other Cohen I’d heard, this was a bolt to the forehead – an evocation of the apocalypse, of resurrected tyrants, where “the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold, and it has overturned the order of the soul”. It’s the paired-terms tune of a visionary, a mystic, and of a Waitsian drunken god all in one. His phrasing is lugubrious and arch, and I don’t think anyone has made the word “hole” sound filthier.

(Yes, I did take a certain adolescent glee in blasting a song that mentions crack and anal sex. REBELLION.)

The idea I have in the song is of a watcher both at the threshold and in the center of things, maybe in a bar. It’s a trope that turns up in his work a fair bit, and it’s one I like – it’s probably unsurprising that “The Partisan” is one of my favourite songs from his earlier days, or that “Nevermind” from his most recent album is another. Cohen’s all-seeing (yet flawed) eye is something that appeals to me, coupled as it is with a much blacker humour that I have only come to recognise (let alone appreciate) in recent years.

(Fun author fact the second: I once had lunch with a fellow student, a couple of years later, who liked me. A lot. Being a mopey arts student, I was oblivious. Except then I suddenly wasn’t. The album this comes from was played in the background on repeat, which now that I think about it is at once a terrifying and perfect seduction soundtrack.)

I have listened to Leonard Cohen for many years, but he’s always been someone I felt didn’t appreciate enough. More accurately, I felt that I was probably missing something; that everyone else was getting something out of him that I wasn’t. It’s only recently that this feeling has begun to recede, and curiously I think it’s stuff like this – synth and doom, and the ridiculous self-confidence it takes to combine the two and pull it off – that it’s begun to abate. I’d always respected the guy, but it’s safe to say this song is instrumental in my actually liking him.

Maybe I just needed to grow up. And become a mopey arts grad.

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