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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.