When They Said ‘Repent’, I Wonder What They Meant

August 11, 2006 by · Leave a Comment · Filed under: Music Reviews 

I have been deep into the abyss of “The Essential Leonard Cohen” for the last month or so. Every evening and every chance I get, immersing myself in old favorites and finding new ones.

One of my “forgotten faves” is “The Future” which appeared on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack (staggeringly bad movie; excellent soundtrack). There is so much to recommend Leonard Cohen, and this song is highly representative of all of those elements. Technically sound music-wise; vivid, original scenes painted with the lyrics; quietly fervent passion in the vocalizations; achingly beautiful harmonies; it has that catchy, “hook” quality, but that is only a side effect of the excellence of the culmination of each of the elements into this incredible song.

More than anything, as with all of his music, his personality is showcased. He does not hide behind his music as so many artists do. So, to top it all off, he is generous to a fault; giving of himself as only the best artists do.

Previous favorites of mine are ‘I’m Your Man’, ‘First We Take Manhattan’, ‘Take This Waltz’ (swoon), ‘Waiting For The Miracle’ and ‘Everybody Knows’, to name a few. I’ll delve more into a couple of those later, but next I want to talk about some new favorites.

A few gems that were new to me are, ‘Who By Fire’, ‘The Guests’, and ‘Hallelujah’. (Interestingly I had never heard ‘Hallelujah’ before a few weeks ago when I bought this album, and then the other night I heard a cover of it in the movie ‘Lord of War’.)

‘Who by Fire’ is a short little song, almost like a little prayer. Simply asking “who is calling?” The words are aesthetically pleasing, both in their choosing and placement. The real strengths of song are the melody, the harmonizing, and the simple acoustic guitar that accompanies it. There is not much to say about it except that it gets under your skin, and you find yourself humming and singing it to yourself long after the last time you heard it.

‘The Guests’ is violins and words with double, triple, and abstract meaning. It could be about a party. It could be about death, dying, and the afterlife. It could just about living life and not worrying about death, dying, and the afterlife. It’s a work that leads your thoughts in a certain direction but does not tell you where they should wind up, or to what conclusion you should come.

Some lyrics from ‘The Guests’:

“And those who dance, begin to dance
Those who weep begin
And ‘Welcome, welcome…’ cries a voice
Let all my guests come in.

And no one knows where the night is going …

And all go stumbling through that house
In lonely secrecy
Saying ‘do reveal yourself…’
Or ‘…why has thou forsaken me?’

And no one knows where the night is going …

All at once the torches flare
The inner door flies open
One by one they enter there
In every style of passion

And no one knows where the night is going …

And here they take their sweet repast
While house and grounds dissolve
And one by one the guests are cast
Beyond the garden wall

And no one knows where the night is going …

Those who dance, begin to dance
Those who weep begin
Those who earnestly are lost
Are lost and lost again”

The music of ‘Hallelujah’ matches its amazing lyrics in this way: it breaks your heart with its beauty and that brief feeling of happiness and adoration that comes for a tiny moment in childhood when you truly “believe” in God – and then illustrates the defeat that comes any time you try to re-gain that feeling. Whether trying to feel it by being a good child or a bad child, the fact remains that there is no response and it is very, very lonely.

Some lyrics from “Hallelujah”:

“Now Ive heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the lord
But you dont really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah

Hallelujah, hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I dont even know the name
But if I did, well really, whats it to you?
Theres a blaze of light
In every word
It doesnt matter which you heard
The holy or the broken hallelujah

Hallelujah, hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah

I did my best, it wasnt much
I couldnt feel, so I tried to touch
Ive told the truth, I didnt come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
Ill stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah

Hallelujah, hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah”

Leonard Cohen is one of the most respected, admired, and loved artists around. This fact is born out by the many, many covers and tributes other artists have made of his work. One of the best-known tribute works is the album “I’m Your Fan” where several artists covered some of his greatest works.

He will always be one of the most revered artists in contemporary music and as time goes on. He is a living legend, and if you don’t have it, do yourself a favor and buy “The Essential Leonard Cohen.” You won’t be sorry.


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