You Want it Darker: A Song of Accusation and Lamentation

Leonard Cohen’s newest single/title track to his new album You Want it Darker is as close to perfect as I have heard in terms of modern poetry.

At 82 years old Cohen has distilled a lifetime’s worth of experience and writing into a beautiful frightening song that is wonderfully simple and complex at the same time.

It is Cohen in the role of prophet singing in a voice of lamentation and accusation. But which prophet? Part accusing Job and part wailing Jeremiah, it is a brilliant blend perspectives that points fingers at both God and self (as humanity’s representative).

The song goes as follows:

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker

 Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lordThere’s a lover in the story
But the story’s still the same
There’s a lullaby for suffering
And a paradox to blame
But it’s written in the scriptures
And it’s not some idle claim
You want it darker
We kill the flame

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game
If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

[Outro: Cantor Gideon Zelermyer]
Hineni
Hineni, hineni
Hineni

 

The words make me shiver as I read them again and again. Here is Cohen taking on the role of the priestly caste of Israel (as the Cohen’s are part of) and using his voice, the voice in the song; Cohen standing before God as he nears the end of his life claiming that God is culpable for the state of things and that we are Gods accomplices:

You want it darker, we kill the flame

Like the brashest of the prophets he speaks without fear of recrimination with the challenge leveled to God again and again in Hebrew – “Hineni, Hineni, Hineni, Hineni” or “Here I am” made even more powerful by the fact that it is sung at the end by a cantor from a Montreal synagogue.

It is the ultimate human cry, made most poignant through the experience of Jewish history from Egypt through Babylon and Aushwitz – “Where are you oh Lord?” sung as a round alongside “We know we have failed you just as you are failing us“.

These are the words of a man who will not hide his face but rather stand before God without apology and speak honestly without care for the consequences.

I cannot say enough about the significance of this song/poem in the Cohen anthology of writings – it is truly astounding.

One thought on “You Want it Darker: A Song of Accusation and Lamentation

  1. John Brand

    Hi, Peter

    Fascinating blend of images and sparks from the prophets in this song by Leonard Cohen. There is that bold lament of Habakkuk absent the ‘I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what he will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved’ of Habakkuk 2:1. And there is that ‘here am I’ of Isaiah and even the early pre-exilic Deuternomic theology placing God as the source of blessing and cursing. But there isn’t that ‘we have sinned’ idea which gives Cohen’s theology a Hesiodic pessimistic tone, in my view. The gods have their struggles and we humans have little control of the fallout.

    And, yes, Jeremiah’s lament is there but little of the tremendous foundation he laid for later generations to build their faith upon. When I compare the prayers in Daniel and in Nehemiah to the lament of Jeremiah, I see an exilic and post-exilic or second temple community building their faith on the interpretation of their history through the eyes of Jeremiah. And there are other wisdom teachers from that era who had the same insights as Jeremiah and Isaiah. They saw the key to human freedom in the building of community out of a universal good.

    Of course, that isn’t Cohen at all. He is almost solipsistic in this matter, in my view. He focuses on the tragedy and places its cause outside of himself and, therefore, places a solution out of reach.

    However, you are more familiar with his anthropology than I am, Peter. Perhaps there is something to build community upon in Cohen.

    Thanks for sharing!

    John

    Like

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