Thought on "You Want it Darker"

Leonard Cohen's last studio album (2016)
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Norim
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Thought on "You Want it Darker"

Post by Norim »

This song is an absolute masterclass in poetry. Each line has several possible readings to it, conveying the complicated relationship Leonard Cohen has with God, though I always interpreted it as an accusation towards God and how cruel he can be.

The best example are the lines
"Magnified, Sanctified
Be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified
In the human frame."
Based on the intonation of how they are sung, the lyrics are divided into two sections composed of two lines. When read like that, the lines can be interpreted as Cohen saying that God is holy, but his will is often corrupted by human actions (which fits with how the song often alludes to the Holocaust).

Yet, the song seems to hold a much more negative view of God than that. The entirety of the first verse is composed of Cohen comparing God's position to his own, with God being in a position he does not uphold, and Cohen suffering the consequences. For example,
"if you are the healer,
it means I'm broken and lame."
Going back to the first quote, the lines do not have any punctuation, and as such can be also read as
"Be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified."
This instance of Cohen cursing God is much more in line with the song's themes, being God's apathy, negligence, and perhaps even cruelty.

However, Cohen seems to be blaming himself as well for being complacent:
"They're lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame."
This seems to me to be a comparison between the struggles others and Cohen go through. While others suffer greatly, Cohen's struggles are easy to manage. I believe this to be Cohen expressing guilt or regret, which ties into the finishing part of every verse: "You want it darker", sometimes the line is followed up immediately by "we kill the flame," and sometimes with
"Hineni, hineni
I'm ready, my lord."
The first half is more straightforward, it refers to God's will being dark. Both the variations of the second half have more going on with them though, tied strongly to Jewish symbolism. For the first variation, a flame symbolizes life, holiness, and remembrance; there are also many traditions involving candles and the forbiddance of extinguishing them. "We kill the flame" is likely Cohen admitting to committing a heinous act. For the second variation, Hineni literally means 'I am here,' but due to the word's usage in the old testament, often implies a readiness to follow God's will or to take responsibility in front of Him. So, despite contrasting himself with God in the initial verse, Cohen slowly compares himself more and more due to their complacency.
dar
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Re: Thought on "You Want it Darker"

Post by dar »

Thanks for your thoughts on "You Want it Darker". Enjoyed reading the post. Welcome to The Forum.

There is a Discord server revolving around Leonard's work. A nice community and lots of great info. You should check that out too - and anyone else here who might be interested. I think you can find it by just typing in Leonard Cohen Discord.
mcraenich
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Re: Thought on "You Want it Darker"

Post by mcraenich »

It's interesting that you took the song as a vilification of God. Personally I've never seen it that way. I always viewed the song as a vilification of people themselves.

Cohen was a self-professed Jew, but likely only in public image. With how famous he was, and how entrenched he was in the Jewish community, he knew that becoming openly atheist would cause a stir. So God remains a theme in his work, but to me it's an ambiguous, generic God, and only there to pay homage to his fans who are religious (God sounds a lot nicer than a lack of one). Don't get me wrong, he was a very religious man, but I'd guess in truth he was more of a pantheist than anything else.

As for the lyrics, these ones stand out to me:
In the human frame
It's hard to know what was meant by that, but when you take the song as a whole, and Cohen's history of writing about human nature, it's hard not to believe that this song was a pointed finger back at us, not God.

Then we get the line:
Hineni, hineni
I'm ready, my Lord
Which shows a reverence toward God. He's in effect turning away from humanity and letting his personal God know that he's ready to move on.

That's how I've always interpreted it.
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LisaLCFan
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Re: Thought on "You Want it Darker"

Post by LisaLCFan »

mcraenich wrote: Thu Nov 02, 2023 7:31 pm ...Cohen was a self-professed Jew, but likely only in public image. With how famous he was, and how entrenched he was in the Jewish community, he knew that becoming openly atheist would cause a stir. So God remains a theme in his work, but to me it's an ambiguous, generic God, and only there to pay homage to his fans who are religious (God sounds a lot nicer than a lack of one). Don't get me wrong, he was a very religious man, but I'd guess in truth he was more of a pantheist than anything else...
Wow, that is a very unique interpretation, and I am actually rather astonished that you would think those things about him! Admittedly, I did not know Leonard Cohen personally, but based on everything that I do know about him, I can't agree with what you've written, for I have always had a very different perception of him both as a person and regarding his religious beliefs (beliefs that I have never shared, being a non-religious person myself). If anything, your suggestions are offensive, for you are implying that Leonard was not genuine and that his words were not authentic, and to me, that would be the antithesis of the man.

Of course, everyone has an opinion, and you are entitled to yours.
mcraenich
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Re: Thought on "You Want it Darker"

Post by mcraenich »

LisaLCFan wrote: Thu Nov 02, 2023 8:25 pm
mcraenich wrote: Thu Nov 02, 2023 7:31 pm ...Cohen was a self-professed Jew, but likely only in public image. With how famous he was, and how entrenched he was in the Jewish community, he knew that becoming openly atheist would cause a stir. So God remains a theme in his work, but to me it's an ambiguous, generic God, and only there to pay homage to his fans who are religious (God sounds a lot nicer than a lack of one). Don't get me wrong, he was a very religious man, but I'd guess in truth he was more of a pantheist than anything else...
Wow, that is a very unique interpretation, and I am actually rather astonished that you would think those things about him! Admittedly, I did not know Leonard Cohen personally, but based on everything that I do know about him, I can't agree with what you've written, for I have always had a very different perception of him both as a person and regarding his religious beliefs (beliefs that I have never shared, being a non-religious person myself). If anything, your suggestions are offensive, for you are implying that Leonard was not genuine and that his words were not authentic, and to me, that would be the antithesis of the man.

Of course, everyone has an opinion, and you are entitled to yours.
You have to realize that there is a difference between Cohen as man, and Cohen as public persona, someone who was well known worldwide. He even touched on this in one of his albums in the song 'Going Home'.

I don't mean to suggest that he wasn't authentic, or that he was dishonest, but when you're writing poetry and poetic music you can only reveal so much about yourself if you want your art to sell. And music was very much his bread and butter, feeding his kids. This is doubly true for Cohen, whose words are literally pored over by all of his fans.

This is no different than any politician with different public and private beliefs, or employee who doesn't want to reveal everything to their co-workers. It's a normal thing that people do.

Cohen was an excellent writer throughout his career, but everything he wrote still had to sell, and in that way he lacked a degree of freedom to express himself exactly as he wanted.
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LisaLCFan
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Re: Thought on "You Want it Darker"

Post by LisaLCFan »

mcraenich wrote: Fri Nov 03, 2023 3:10 am ...You have to realize...
Clearly, you believe yourself to be indisputably right, and therefore there is no point in my continuing this futile exchange.
mcraenich
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Re: Thought on "You Want it Darker"

Post by mcraenich »

LisaLCFan wrote: Fri Nov 03, 2023 5:03 am
mcraenich wrote: Fri Nov 03, 2023 3:10 am ...You have to realize...
Clearly, you believe yourself to be indisputably right, and therefore there is no point in my continuing this futile exchange.
Apologies if it came across that way, definitely not my intent. I'm open to other interpretations, this is just my take after reading him for a few years.

I don't think his true beliefs and perspective can really be known, because he was pretty closed book throughout his career. All we can do is infer from the lyrics, but IMO it's a mistake to always take them literally.
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LisaLCFan
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Re: Thought on "You Want it Darker"

Post by LisaLCFan »

mcraenich wrote: Sat Nov 04, 2023 12:16 am ...I don't think his true beliefs and perspective can really be known, because he was pretty closed book throughout his career. All we can do is infer from the lyrics, but IMO it's a mistake to always take them literally.

I never said anything about taking his lyrics litrally -- and I don't even know how one could do that, given the often cryptic, poetic, metaphorical, multi-layered nature of his words. I have no idea what his lyrics mean, and I doubt if any of them have one single meaning, for I generally think that poetry -- and that is what Leonard's written work is, whether published in a book or as a song -- is open to interpretation, such that it can mean different things to different people and at different times.

When it comes to having some understanding of who Leonard Cohen was and what he may have believed regarding religious matters, in addition to his songs and poetry, we also have many interviews with Cohen spanning 50 years (and several documentaries), as well as knowledge about where and, to some extent, how he lived, as well accounts from people who knew him fairly well (which, of course, can be biased, but it is another source of information that can provide insight), etc...

I simply don't buy your assertion that Cohen the private individual was somehow significantly different from the public guy such that he held a different and separate set of beliefs and world views from those he presented publicly -- including through his work. And, I think that it is frankly absurd to suggest that he inlcuded references to "God" only to pander to his religious fans!

It does not even make sense to me to suggest that Cohen was so concerned about selling albums and books throughout his career that he sacrificed his own artistic freedom to make something more commercially viable! We are taking about Leonard Cohen, who, up until his massive world tour starting in 2008, was never very famous, not compared to mainstream artists, because, Leonard was never mainstream -- he was always a niche artist, seemingly doing whatever the hell he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it, and having a loyal but relatively small fanbase, mostly in Europe and Canada until the explosion of his popularity post 2008.

Of course, I could be wrong, or you could be wrong, or neither of us could be wrong, or maybe only partially wrong... But, I remain highly skeptical of your assumptions and assertions about Cohen.

Anyway, I have nothing more to say on this matter -- I've said far more than I intended to. Regards.
mcraenich
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Re: Thought on "You Want it Darker"

Post by mcraenich »

LisaLCFan wrote: Sat Nov 04, 2023 1:22 am I simply don't buy your assertion that Cohen the private individual was somehow significantly different from the public guy such that he held a different and separate set of beliefs and world views from those he presented publicly -- including through his work. And, I think that it is frankly absurd to suggest that he inlcuded references to "God" only to pander to his religious fans!
Maybe this comment of mine needs some qualification. IMO, Cohen was very interested in the divine, with an interest in both Zen Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta Hinduism. That's where my comment about pantheism comes into play. He definitely had religious and spiritual inclinations, however my take is that he held onto Judaism and it's imagery, specifically, because of two things:

a) Judaism is just as much cultural as it is religious. Holding onto the faith in these circles is common.
b) It generally looks better than identifying with other labels.

So God was very much there in his life. But was it really the Jewish God in his mind? It's hard to tell, and maybe impossible to know for sure. But personally, I find it hard to believe that someone who was as educated as Cohen was, and who spent the end of his life taking part in secular religions, took Abrahamic faith as anything but a human-derived set of beliefs with nice literature.

In Book of Longing he even jokes about this, that some people don't believe he is truly Jewish.

In any case, I hope my post isn't coming across as too confrontational. I'm not trying to be argumentative, it's just an interesting topic. If you're not interested in carrying on any further, no worries.
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LisaLCFan
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Re: Thought on "You Want it Darker"

Post by LisaLCFan »

Well, mcraenich, we'll have to agree to disagree! Cheerio!
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B4real
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Re: Thought on "You Want it Darker"

Post by B4real »

Hope this helps not hinders. Thought I would add some info here from "the horse's mouth" :)

LC’s words on religion and his songs:

I mean, I’m a practising Jew, and I always was, but I still felt myself a practising monk. We’re complex creatures; unless you’re dealing with orthodox people on either side who wouldn’t be tolerant. But my orthodoxy is this other thing where you can hold various positions. I’ve never found any conflicts.
~ From an interview in 2007 by Border Crossing on LC & BOL

I never saw myself as a Zen Buddhist.
~ From an interview in 1988 with Hot Press

As I see religion, it’s a technique for strength and for making the universe hospitable. I think there really is a power to tune in on. It’s easy for me to call that power God. Some people find it difficult. You mention the word God to them and they go through a lot of difficult reactions, they just don’t like it. I mean that there’s certainly no doubt about it, that the name has fallen on evil days. But it doesn’t have those evil associations or those organizational associations for me. It’s easier for me to say God than “some unnamable mysterious power that motivates all living things”. The word God for me is very simple and useable. And even to use the masculine pronouns He and Him, it doesn’t offend me as it offends many; so that I can say “to become close to Him is to feel His grace” because I have felt it.
But, you know, my training as a writer, just in the craft, I know that I’m not going to lay too much of that sound on people because it’ll just be pointless. Unless I can find a song to place that information in; there’s no point in me just writing out some religious tract.
~ From my post here - viewtopic.php?f=9&p=367777#p367777

It’s possible that sincerity might be confused with many things, especially in the world of music, where so many commercial currents run. In any case, it’s only a question of coloring. My music is a reflection of my personality, and my personality is a reflection of all that surrounds me. For me, seeing all of this as my work, the most important thing is to be worthy. So, I treat this world that surrounds me with the integrity and dignity necessary to bring it, through me, to everyone else. After that, it is the spiritual state of each person that determines how it will affect her or him. A person could think that I or my songs are sad because of that person’s own spiritual state, because they are not affected by the chaotic emotions that surround us, because they are living in another state, and I don’t mean to say that that state is more superficial or ordinary, on the contrary, it is the way of being forged by each individual, in which they live. But their power to understand will be affected by what they feel, and by the meaning they give to things. My songs are life and the facts of each day, and I am my songs.
~ From an Interview in 1974 with Leonard Cohen by Jordi Sierra I Fabra.
Published in Leonard Cohen by Alberto Manzano 1978.
It doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to B4real ~ me
Attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy ~ me ...... The magic of art is the truth of its lies ~ me ...... Only left-handers are in their right mind!
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LisaLCFan
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Re: Thought on "You Want it Darker"

Post by LisaLCFan »

Thank you for those interview quotes, Bev. I am familiar with them, as well as similar statements that Leonard made throughout his life, and the person and beliefs reflected in Leonard’s own words certainly correspond to my understanding and perception of him.
sebmelmoth2003
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"You Want it Darker" - Sopranos

Post by sebmelmoth2003 »

quote from michael imperioli in - woke up this morning :

page 267...it's too bad that leonard cohen's you want it darker wasn't around for season four of the sopranos, or i'm sure david chase [creator, execuitve producer] would have worked it in somewhere...

also available as audio book/ebook - published in the US by william morrow.

https://www.4thestate.co.uk/products/wo ... 008513467/
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