#295: Leonard Cohen, "Songs of Love and Hate" (1971)

The first time I listened to Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate, I never wanted to hear it again. It begins with “Avalanche,” which carries you away right from the first chord, rolling through lyrics like you who wish to conquer pain / you must learn what makes me kind / the crumbs of love that you offer me / they’re the crumbs I’ve left behind. It accelerates down to the chilling last lines: it is your turn beloved / it is your flesh that I wear. A Rolling Stone review called the album “depressing”; another critic said it’s “one of the scariest albums of the last forty years.”

I didn’t want to listen to Songs of Love and Hate because it’s so dark. I try, in much of my life, to avoid exposing myself unnecessarily to pain. I don’t listen to certain music, or watch certain shows, or read certain books because I don’t want to suffer if I don’t have to. There’s enough pain in the world already, I generally think. It will come my way in some shape or form over and over again, so why seek it out?

Sometimes that strategy has gone too far. When sadness has hit, or anger, or some other form of pain, I’ve gone out of my way to avoid it. When certain feelings are brought up by experience or the vagaries of human mood, I try to push them aside for a more convenient time, often by transferring that energy into worrying about nothing. Usually, I’m able get through whatever I need to get through, then end up collapsing in a panic attack after the situation’s over.

I spent years in therapy for anxiety, a condition I’ll always have to some degree. One source of my anxiety is a fear of feeling pain, especially sadness. Sometimes, when I’m sad, I have a childlike worry that I’ll always be sad—that the clouds will never lift, and that I’ll end up depressed. Even though I’ve learned how to deal with my feelings reasonably well, an underlying terror remains that my darknesses will return in the form of all-consuming anxiety. That it’s there, lurking, waiting to pounce.

Listening to Songs of Love and Hate feels like a voluntary wrapping of myself in that darkness. I don’t want to take myself to that place. I volunteered to write about this album as a challenge—to see if I could sit through it and come out with something worthwhile. To see if I could come out of it whole.

Every time I pressed play, I found myself wanting to hit mute. Focus on the lyrics, I’d tell myself. This was an opportunity to spend time with Leonard Cohen’s mastery of language. If I could just block that strumming, that dry voice, I’d think, I would be able to learn from Cohen’s extraordinary use of imagery, like these lines from “Avalanche”: When I am on a pedestal / you did not raise me there / Your laws do not compel me / to kneel grotesque and bare / I myself am the pedestal / for this ugly hump at which you stare. Or like this fragment from “Sing Another Song, Boys”: as all the sails burn down like paper /…they’ll never, they’ll never ever reach the moon / at least not the one we’re after / it’s floating broken on the open sea.

I worried that the album’s mood would seep into my bloodstream. If I could just do a close reading of the lyrics, I thought, I’d come out unscathed. Reading, you can put the pages away. When a song gets stuck in your head, there’s not much you can do to get it out.

But this album does not exist for our enjoyment. It intentionally forces listeners into a place of pain. Cohen’s voice assures us from the very first track that Your pain is no credential here / it’s just the shadow of my wound. This album doesn’t exist to make us feel good. Unlike so much popular music, it wants to challenge us. It drags us, kicking and screaming, into an abyss, from the first chords of “Avalanche” to “Joan of Arc”’s fiery conclusion:

It was deep into his fiery heart / he took the dust of Joan of Arc / and then she clearly understood / if he was fire, then she must be wood / I saw her wince, I saw her cry / I saw the glory in her eye / Myself I long for love and light / but must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?

Listening, I worried I would not be able to escape. I worried that publishing this essay on my birthday would somehow curse the year ahead. I worried, like I used to the times I really, truly, let myself feel pain, that it would never let me loose.

I didn’t want to listen to the album because it always brings me back to a fraught year of my life. When I was 22 and living alone in a studio in Washington Heights, I feared that anxiety would swallow me whole. That winter, several things hit at once. I could have handled most of those challenges just fine if they’d come at me singularly, but they collected, one upon the other, like an avalanche. The day after Christmas, I developed pneumonia. My then-boyfriend wouldn’t take me to the doctor, so I sweated out a 103-degree fever for three days before finally hauling myself downtown in a cab.

Pneumonia left me weak for over a month. Usually active, I was too easily winded to walk up the escalators at my subway stop anymore, and had to stand to the side to let people pass. Work, plus the commute, was enough to wipe me out for the day. Weekends, I needed to sleep and sleep. I became paranoid about health, fearing that every time I touched the subway railing I would catch another disease that would knock me back off my feet.

Then, just as I was beginning to really get over the pneumonia, I was rejected for a major grant that would have changed my life. Then, my boss suddenly resigned, throwing my workplace into months of chaos. In the midst of all this, the then-boyfriend cheated on me. I started having frequent panic attacks for the first time in years.

Luckily, I was seeing a therapist at the time. Having a place to go talk things out, it allowed the buildup to slow. And, at times, working with her helped me get the anxiety out. For me, anxiety is often a symptom of other emotions lying in wait. That year, it was a mix: fear of losing my job, anger at the boyfriend, disappointment about the grant, fear of getting sick again, and an overall resurgence of anxiety itself.

The only way to let a feeling out, I’ve learned, is by expressing it. In art, in music, in exercise, or simply by talking. Except, not so simply. Therapy isn’t just talking; it’s forcing yourself to identify and confront feelings you may not want to look in the eye. There were times when I’d end up in a ball on my therapist’s couch, shaking and howling wordlessly. During those moments, I wondered if the pain was going to kill me right there.

But it didn’t. Eventually, I sat back up and made my way home. If there was a fog around my head that evening, it was a little lighter the next day, or the next. Even if a new worry settled, I could remember getting through to the other side of something like it. Tunnels, yes, but also—and most importantly—light.

Or, to follow Cohen’s metaphor in the album’s concluding track, “Joan of Arc,” fire and wood. Except, I learned, I could choose not to be wood. I didn’t have to follow Cohen’s logic of if he was fire, oh then she must be wood. Every time I found myself in a dark place, love would call my name.

I think that’s what’s at the heart of Songs of Love and Hate: love calling our names. “Love Calls You By Your Name” is the fifth of eight songs on the album, and it marks something of a tonal shift. Though melodically it’s not the most upbeat—that’s probably the deceptively peppy “Sing Another Song, Boys”—the song has some hope embedded deep within it. If we look between things, we’ll find love. As Cohen himself once said, the song “searches out the middle place between the beginning and the end of things,” and it approaches a meeting point between despair and hope.

In therapy, I sought that center. Sometimes, I didn’t get there. But other times, I reached that meeting point, or even passed it by, finding hope. It started to happen consecutively. And, as I processed my feelings, the worry and the fear all subsided. I learned how to deal with anxiety: by sitting with the feelings until they faded of their own accord, by learning to calm myself, by reminding myself that the feelings wouldn’t last forever. I recovered from the pneumonia, and, slowly, anxiety’s hold lessened. I began to have panic attacks only once a week, then once a month, then back to the normal few times a year.

Listening to Songs of Love and Hate is one of the most visceral musical experiences there is. It throws you into the physicality of panic and despair, then takes you on a journey through the depths until it—and you—can find a way out. At first, I worried that Cohen’s album would return me to the way I felt at 22. That its melancholy would be able to seek me out. But, every time “Joan of Arc” ended, I went back to my life. The darkness subsided, as it always does.

Songs of Love and Hate is about despair. The combination of Cohen’s lyrics, his baritone, the slow melancholy strumming, and the unnerving background voices of children and women, sends us to dark places. But the album also finds hope in its center, as we, too, must seek the hope embedded in our own cores.

By the next winter, I was edging towards the other side of that anxiety. Though I made it out of that phase stronger, I sometimes still worry when the next long wave will hit, when I’ll next have months in which I’m constantly on the verge of a panic attack. But I try not to let myself indulge those worries. It will come, and I will deal with it when it does, stronger now because I’ve sat through it before.

I worry now that I don’t have anything new to say about facing our own personal darknesses. Cohen says it best: Myself I long for love and light / but must it come so cruel, and oh so bright? Yes, sometimes it must. But I think what I have learned—what Songs of Love and Hate reminded me—does bear repeating. Here, I paraphrase one of my college professors: Sit through the mess, and you will figure out how to untangle it. Sit through the darkness, and you will find a way to make a flame that will brighten, not consume.

—Marissa Mazek