In rock music, especially in the performance arena, there is no room for prayer, but I think that so many of the songs people write are prayers. A lot of my songs seem to be prayers for unity within myself. … Looking at what I have done in my life, in retrospect so much of what I thought was adventurism was searching for my tenuous connection with God. — David Bowie, interviewed by Tony Parsons for Arena (May/June, 1993)
You say I took the Name in vain
I don’t even know the Name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah. …
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my breath but Hallelujah. —Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”
In the grand tradition of end-of-the-year blog posts, the temptation to reduce another revolution around the sun into an abiding theme, well, abides. To say that 2016 has been a year many would prefer to observe from the rear-view mirror flirts with understatement.
Perhaps the strongest statements about the year came at its beginning and end, with the release of David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want it Darker bookending the year — two albums pondering mortality and the afterlife, released mere weeks before each artist’s demise. A reflection on the two albums may now seem morbid, but I believe they provided lenses through which we can make meaning of the detritus of 2016, and even come to understand better the condition of Western humanity in what may be the dusk of modernity.
Bowie’s album, arriving in the first week of 2016, preceded the artist’s succumbing to cancer by mere days. Before Bowie’s death, the album was heralded as an unconventional late gem of his career. It stood up on its own merits as an ethereal reflection upon mortality and legacy, along with Bowie’s more traditional subject matter of decadence, sex, and low culture. Following his death, the album’s genius as a prerecorded dispatch “from beyond” garnered greater consideration and praise.
Bowie, known for inhabiting elaborate alter egos such as Ziggy Stardust in his early career, seemed to pull off the ultimate merger of art and life in his union of art and death. The album artwork for Blackstar’s vinyl release was a stunning black-on-black interplay of matte and glossy textures that only revealed their lines and texts in certain angles of light. Accompanying the album’s music was a series of videos showing Bowie in various evocations of mortality, dying, and transcendence.
The lyrics of the title track spoke most clearly of Bowie’s grasp for the eternal.
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried: “I’m a blackstar!”
Even the imagery of the black star — a small point of light, now darkened — spoke of the fading glory and insignificance of fame. Bowie’s former doppelgänger bore the surname Stardust, after all.
Was Bowie grasping for meaning or hope? “I can’t answer why / but I can tell you how / We were born upside-down / Born the wrong way ’round” (“Blackstar”).
Perhaps he was even gesturing towards a need for redemption: “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen … this way or no way / you know I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird” (“Lazarus”).
Whatever depths Bowie pondered, he dredged them primarily for himself. He was more dreamer than prophet, a glittering, glam-rock star, more content to shine in the lights of fame and glory on his own than to guide others to the heights with him. The album’s brilliance lies in pointing to the genius of the artist, shocking the world and shining on, even in the face of death. This is the contemporary icon of human glory: what Augustine via Luther described as homo incurvatus in se (the human being turned in on himself), what Bowie described in the quote at the head of this piece as “prayers for unity with myself.” A life lived for pleasure alone — even spiritual pleasure — fails, if not oriented outside itself towards the divine other.
Leonard Cohen, on the other hand, always seemed to be reaching out for a transcendent other that was present, imminent, yet just out of grasp: “I did my best, it wasn’t much / I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch” (“Hallelujah”). Bono once described Cohen’s genius in the 2006 documentary I’m Your Man.
Lots of writers dared to walk up to the edge of reason and stare into that great chasm, into the abyss. Very few people have got there and laughed out loud at what they saw. It’s the divine comedy.
In this way, You Want It Darker, another postcard from the edge of the abyss, chatters and howls with the humor and depth that characterize Cohen’s work. Fitting his surname, Cohen sings and writes like a priest of sorts, with his “feet in the mud and [his] heart in heaven,” as he once said. On the title track, Cohen even employs the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir behind him as he intones the confessional hineni, Hebrew for “Here I am,” from Isaiah 6:8, הִנְנִ֥י. “I’m ready, my Lord,” he finally speak-sings solo.
Where Bowie rages against the dying of the light, Cohen accepts guilt for the darkness inherent in the fallen world: “You want it darker? We killed the flame” (“You Want It Darker”).
Cohen’s album plumbs greater depths than Bowie’s, but nevertheless sounds with greater overtones of grace: “I’ve seen you change the water into wine. I’ve seen you change it back to water, too” (“Treaty”). This is sacramental imagery, christological language, speaking to the double-edged hope and frustration of waiting in a world lived between the two advents of Christ.
Perhaps this is what we can hope for at the end of 2016, that whatever difficulties we are yet to encounter in late Western modernity, we are not left without our testimonials to the transcendent, what the General Thanksgiving refers to as “the means of grace and the hope of glory.”
I’ll close with Cohen’s via media, his words of how to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of our vapid modern consumer culture and our own “broken Hallelujahs” on our way to meet the Lord, taken from the lyrics to “Steer Your Way,” off You Want It Darker:
Steer your way past the ruins
Of the altar and the mall
Steer your way through the fables
Of creation and the fall
Steer your way past the palaces
That rise above the rot
Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought […]
They whisper still, the injured stones
The blunted mountains weep
As he died to make men holy
Let us die to make things cheap
And say the mea culpa, which you probably forgot
Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought