Most of best songs by Leonard Cohen — the legendary singer/songwriter who died at the age of 82 this week — felt like wry reflections of humanity’s darkness, mixing the political with the personal, lyrical but practical. It shouldn’t be particularly surprising, then, that much of his music should feel an appropriate soundtrack to the ugliness of our current post-election national identity crisis — his stark morbidity and wicked sense of humor, without needless sensationalism (because, so often, the truth doesn’t need it) feel just about right for November 2016. Right up to his most recent effort, October’s You Want It Darker, Cohen’s songs gently stabbed with grinning, self-aware horror: “I struggled with some demons/ They were middle-class and tame/ I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim.”
Two of his best-remembered songs — both from his career-reinventing (and career-reviving) classic 1988 LP I’m Your Man — feel particularly resonant this week. The storming synth-pop of “First We Take Manhattan” was the album’s opener, and an absolute juggernaut of political resolve. Today, many of its deadpanned pronouncements could easily be spun to come from the perspective of either Hillary Clinton (“They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom/ For trying to change the system from within”) or Donald Trump (“Ah, you loved me as a loser, but now you’re worried that I just might win/ You know the way to stop me, but you don’t have the discipline”) with alarming specificity.
The imperial march of the song’s refrain (“First we take Manhattan/ Then we take Berlin”) is the song’s definitive takeaway, delivered with monotone, even-metered determination. As chilling as the sentiments are, whether in the midst of cold-war paranoia or at the height of American nationalistic arrogance, what’s particularly uncanny about the chorus is the way it’s hammered home at the end of every verse, a subtle (though blunt) take on the brain-deadening effects of party sloganeering. Like all great political catchphrases, the “Manhattan” chorus is repeated so many times it becomes dull and oppressive, until you start wondering if it actually means something entirely different than what you originally believed. And like all great political catchphrases, the “Manhattan” chorus ultimately loses meaning altogether.
But what remains most potent about Cohen’s “Manhattan” is the gleaming unstoppability of its production. Cohen has explained it as a “terrorist song,” controversially opining: “There’s something about terrorism that I’ve always admired. The fact that there are no alibis or no compromises.” That threatening self-belief comes through in the lyrics, but it echoes much louder through the music, which is probably why longtime collaborator Jennifer Warnes’ bluesier version of the song (which was actually released before Cohen’s own) feels limp by comparison. A towering, slithering composition of synthetic bombast — bass, horns, strings, drums, all artificial — the instrumental sounds alluring, soulless, and forcefully irresistible. With every measure, the song feels like it’s advancing, with Cohen the fleet’s cackling commander. With much of the country currently fearing for the safety of their way of life, it’s an appropriately terrifying listen.
“Everybody Knows,” found two tracks later on I’m Your Man, is less frightening, but possibly even more pertinent. No longer the general on the warpath, Cohen is now more the defeated soldier: “Everybody knows the war is over/ Everybody knows the good guys lost.” But more than lamenting the end result of the battle, Cohen bemoans the fact that the fight was never a particularly fair or honest one anyway: “Everybody knows the fight was fixed/ The poor stay poor, the rich get rich,” “Everybody knows that the boat is leaking/ Everybody knows that the captain lied.” He even touches on the racial inequity of the underlying causes (“Everybody knows the deal is rotten/ Old Black Joe’s still pickin’ cotton/ For your ribbons and bows”) and forebodes that the worst is still to come (“And everybody knows that the Plague is coming/ Everybody knows that it’s moving fast”).
Even with all these eerily timely portents, Cohen again saves his song’s richest commentary for its refrain. The phrase “everybody knows” is repeated dozens and dozens of times throughout the song, prefacing nearly every notable point and following many others, echoing its titular sentiment until, as with “Manhattan,” it becomes thoroughly unconvincing. And that’s about right, too: If there was one true lesson to be learned from this election season, it’s that what Everybody Knows is rarely ever “known” by more than half the populace, and that both sides are too often blinded by their assuredness of an obviously shared perspective when, in reality, everyone sees their own side of the truth. Cohen seems to understand this, exaggerating every syllable of his chorus until it sounds like he’s laughing at his own ridiculousness. He should be.
In a world where reality often feels like it’s being narrated by the “IN A WORLD…” guy, “First We Take Manhattan” and “Everybody Knows” just about the best we could ask for to try to make sense of it all: Languishing without despairing, reflecting without judging, allowing the invariable conclusions to demonstrate their own bleakness and somehow keeping a sense of humor about it all. And even though Leonard Cohen has now passed, the continuing timeliness of these songs ensure that his presence will endure whenever we need them to turn to. Everybody knows that’s what the best songwriting is for, anyway.