It’s a rewarding time to be a Leonard Cohen fan.
Not only does Cohen, who will turn 80 this year, seem to get better with age. Just two years ago, Sylvie Simmons published an admiring, comprehensive biography of the Canadian songwriter, “I’m Your Man.” Now comes “A Broken Hallelujah,” in which Liel Leibovitz, who teaches media and culture at New York University, takes readers on a deep dive through the cardinal spiritual themes that have informed Cohen’s work for six decades, from the standards “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne” to the edgy, late-career hits “First We Take Manhattan” and “Everybody Knows.”
Beginning with a riveting, cinematic account of Cohen’s appearance at the Isle of Wight music festival in 1970 — where the singer-songwriter calmed a nastily restive audience through the sheer transcendent force of his character — Leibovitz then loops back to 1930s Montreal, where Cohen was born into a prosperous family descended from some of the city’s most prominent Jewish figures. Although Leibovitz is careful not to overreach (“This is not a biography of Leonard Cohen,” he categorically declares in the book’s preface), he nonetheless revisits the most pivotal moments of Cohen’s life, first as a poet and a novelist, then as a musician: the influence of Canadian poets Irving Layton and A.M. Klein; his first ecstatic, then evangelical, experience hearing Bob Dylan; his sojourns on the Greek island of Hydra and in New York’s Chelsea Hotel; international tours that felt like wartime deployments (and sometimes were); his commitment to Rinzai Zen Buddhism; and a late-in-life creative and commercial resurgence that has been nothing less than triumphant. Throughout it all, Leibovitz writes, Cohen has been “a poet whose words, like the chants of Gregorian monks, seem designed to attract the attention of some higher power.”
Leibovitz chronicles that pursuit with insight, economy and graceful writing, vividly evoking Cohen’s restless early years in Montreal before smoothly moving him to Hydra, “the perfect disinterested atmosphere in which Cohen could find his preoccupation, the one theme that, with slight variations, would consume him throughout his career.”
That preoccupation was redemption. And for evidence one need look no further than “Hallelujah,” which Cohen recorded in 1984 and which has gone on to become one of the most overworked songs of all time (especially on movie soundtracks, in which a moratorium is long past due). Even while noting the “obscene” number of cover versions, Leibovitz locates “Hallelujah” within Cohen’s lifelong personal and professional enterprise: an inquiry into faith and spiritual selfhood grounded in the tenets of Judaism, tempered by Buddhist meditative practices and animated by Cohen’s own belief in the power of “art, love, friendship, kindness, music [and] sex.”
Speaking with Cohen’s friends and colleagues; mining the singer’s letters, notebooks and interviews; and drawing on scholarly commentary that ranges from Plato, Jewish liturgy and Old Testament theologians to Hannah Arendt, Manny Farber and John Milton, Leibovitz has produced a lively, erudite and affecting exegesis of Cohen’s work, both lyrically and as a creative process that has been notoriously painstaking, if not outright painful. Taking years to write songs by chipping away until only their essence remained; launching tours that sometimes ended in violence or alienation or both; grappling with depression; retreating to a monastery on Mount Baldy, where he spent five years becoming a Buddhist monk, Cohen has burned alternately hot and cold. At times, Leibovitz characterizes him as “paralyzed by what seemed to be a case of existential jitters.” At others, including that memorable performance at the Isle of Wight, he’s used his low, incantatory voice — between a growl and a whisper — to speak directly to his listeners’ most tender and compassionate hearts.
A late bloomer (he didn’t record his first album until he was in his 30s), Cohen was destined to spend his share of time in the wilderness — including his disastrous collaboration with a hopped-up, gun-happy Phil Spector to make the album “Death of a Ladies’ Man,” a sorry episode recounted here as a shudder-inducing blow-by-blow. It wasn’t until he was in his 70s that he became an indie-rock icon — the revered, sharply dressed tribal elder whose position was only further secured when, after losing all his money to an embezzling manager, he was forced to tour in the mid-2000s. Mirabile dictu, this most recent chapter of Cohen’s career has found him re-energized as an artist and newly at ease with the live audiences he historically kept in approach-avoidance limbo.
Leibovitz makes a convincing case that Cohen has claimed his rightful place within the prophetic tradition that inspired him all along. Leibovitz often compares the feeling of a Cohen concert to being in a house of worship. To the extent that Cohen’s mesmerizing murmur has become tantamount to the voice of God itself, it’s because as a singer, a songwriter and a seeker, he’s never been anything other than sincerely L. Cohen.
Hornaday is chief film critic of The Washington Post.