The Future
by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

How many big events to shake the earth,
Lie packed in silence waiting for their birth.
Gravel-voiced and monotone, Leonard Cohen growls his way through these songs -- often supported, surrealistically enough, by a girl group singing back-up. While his songs are not musically complex, often lacking in melody altogether, his lyrics are by turns beautiful and horrifying, but in either case are brilliantly-rendered. The man is a poet of the first order.

This album, though released in 1992, certainly looks forward to the new millennium. More than half of the songs on the album describe the “future” in some way or another. In fact, post 9-11, this album rings truer than ever. To make this analysis clearer, I have split the songs on the album into two groups: those that speak of the future, and those that don't. Understand then that I am presenting the songs out of order. The songs actually appear in this order on the album:


"The Future" - The basic gist is that the speaker has seen hints of what the world would be like in the future, and has decided that the horrible stuff we've had already is infinitely preferable. The images are quite graphic:

Give me crack and anal sex
Take the only tree that's left
and stuff it up the hole
in your culture
Give me back the Berlin wall
give me Stalin and Saint Paul
I've seen the future, brother:
it is murder.

Without a doubt, Cohen is pulling no punches here. The violent and graphic nature of this song causes problems for Cohen's liberal fan-base. I have read all sorts of desperate theories about what this song is "really" about -- including one claim that it is "really" about the whole world finally achieving the Buddhist state of Nirvana (Cohen did spend some time as a monk in a Buddhist monastery). From what I understand from Buddhism, crack and anal sex are not part of the package.

I don't assume (as every other reviewer I've read has) that Cohen himself is the speaker. Instead, I think this song, taken along with the other five "future" songs on the album, work together to present us with many different views on what the end of the millennium means -- none of which are necessarily the views of Cohen himself.

The important part of this song is the vision the speaker has of the future, which, as he keeps telling us, "is murder:"

Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul
When they said repent, repent
I wonder what they meant.

In short, the horrors of the Cold War are going to be nothing compared to what follows: a complete disintegration of the boundaries between things. Once those boundaries are gone, "things are going to slide ... in all directions," and there "won't be nothing ... you can measure anymore." This could be taken in two ways:

  • 1) Literally -- Cohen could be suggesting that we, as a species, are losing our ability to differentiate between what is good and what is bad, what is important and what is unimportant. This would indeed be the "murder" of our culture.
  • 2) Even More Literally -- The song could be about the Cold War itself, since many of the elements that the speaker wishes to have back are from that era: the Berlin Wall, Stalin, Hiroshima. In other words, he could be bemoaning the fact that our forty-five-year face-off with the Soviet Union was what made the West so strong, and now that we've "won" the Cold War, we no longer have an enemy to define ourselves against. (Enter Islam!)
The last verse of the song seems to bear out the first possibility:

There'll be the breaking of the ancient western code
Your private life will suddenly explode
There'll be phantoms
There'll be fires on the road
and the white man dancing
You'll see your woman
hanging upside down
her features covered by her fallen gown
and all the lousy little poets coming round
tryin' to sound like Charlie Manson
and the white man dancin'.

"Waiting for the Miracle" - Generally, this song is an apology from the speaker to his love interest. He has been isolating himself for "half my life," waiting for this "miracle to come," while she has been trying to get him to pay attention to her:

I know you really loved me.
but, you see, my hands were tied.
I know it must have hurt you,
it must have hurt your pride
to have to stand beneath my window
with your bugle and your drum,
and me I'm up there waiting
for the miracle, for the miracle to come.

Cohen, as we will discover later in this analysis, has a weird Madonna/whore complex. There are very few clues about the "miracle" that the speaker is waiting for. It could be that he has rejected the woman's love because he believes that there is a purer, more "miraculous" love out there. Or the miracle could be something more abstract -- like some sort of holy or artistic epiphany. The nature of the miracle doesn't seem to be the real focus of the song. Rather, the song is about him realizing that, in reality, there were things other than this miracle that should have been more important to him. The speaker has a vision:

I dreamed about you, baby.
It was just the other night.
Most of you was naked
Ah but some of you was light.
The sands of time were falling
from your fingers and your thumb,
and you were waiting
for the miracle, for the miracle to come.

He seems to realize now that focusing on this future "miracle" had caused him to miss the things that have been going on in the present. His vision tells him that time is literally slipping through their fingers. It is in the very next stanza that he proposes to her. The song ends with some cryptic advice:

When you've fallen on the highway
and you're lying in the rain,
and they ask you how you're doing
of course you'll say you can't complain --
If you're squeezed for information,
that's when you've got to play it dumb:
You just say you're out there waiting
for the miracle, for the miracle to come.

"Closing Time" - This song has that oom-pah, Devil's calliope, "Carnival of Souls" feel to it. You can't help but bounce when you hear it, even though the song itself isn't that particularly upbeat. Basically, the lyrics paint a picture of an amoral free-for-all. And Cohen throws in an even mix of God and Satan imagery for good measure. A simple quote will suffice to capture the flavour of the song:

Ah we're drinking and we're dancing
and the band is really happening
and the Johnny Walker wisdom’s running high
And my very sweet companion
she's the Angel of Compassion
she's rubbing half the world against her thigh
And every drinker every dancer
lifts a happy face to thank her
the fiddler fiddles something so sublime
all the women tear their blouses off
and the men they dance on the polka-dots
and it's partner found, it's partner lost
and it's hell to pay when the fiddler stops:
it's closing time.

The most interesting thing about this song is to compare its view of the Apocalypse with the one Cohen presents in "The Future." In that song the future was considered to be so horrible that the speaker infinitely preferred the lesser horrors of the Cold War era. In "Closing Time," it's the end of the world as we know it and the speaker feels fine.

"Anthem"- A truly beautiful song. Despite Cohen's generally cynical outlook on life (and his contra-bass voice), this is a song of hope and perseverance. At a pause in the on-going struggles of life, the speaker receives the following advice: "Don't dwell on what has passed away, or what is yet to be." The song has two strong images. The first is a piece of wisdom about the nature of war and peace:

Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

The second is the refrain of the song -- a beautiful statement about finding glory, not in the perfect, but in the imperfections of the world:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Unlike the sadistic speaker in "The Future," the distracted speaker in "Waiting for the Miracle," and the "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die" speaker in "Closing Time," the speaker of "Anthem" is willing to fight against the disintegration of society:

We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government --
signs for all to see.
I can't run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they've summoned, they've summoned up a thundercloud
and they're going to hear from me.

"Democracy" - "Democracy," the refrain tells us, "is coming to the U.S.A." The song is satirical, of course -- the U.S.A. is the self-proclaimed birthplace of democracy, while still one of the most repressive nations -- but it ends up as a positive statement as well. The subtext is that the United States may finally become the democratic society that it always purported to be (too bad this hasn’t happened yet!). Even the jaunty martial character of the song's melody echoes this irony. Of course, some of the things Cohen lists as being the source of this resurgence of democracy are ironic in themselves:

It's coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square.
It's coming from the feel
that this ain't exactly real,
or it's real, but it ain't exactly there.
From the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
It's coming through a crack in the wall;
on a visionary flood of alcohol;
from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount
which I don't pretend to understand at all.
From the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

The final stanza of the song is notable for several reasons. Most strikingly, the song ends with an image of what America is like now, before democracy has come. This could suggest that the whole song is a hopeful projection on the part of the speaker, rather than a well-reasoned forecast. Funny with the recent events, isn’t it?

I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can't stand the scene.
And I'm neither left or right
I'm just staying home tonight,
getting lost in that hopeless little screen.
But I'm stubborn as those garbage bags
that Time cannot decay,
I'm junk but I'm still holding up this little wild bouquet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

So what does this all mean? It means that Cohen's album speaks very directly to our times today (2002). These songs can be very easily applied to American imperialism, repressive violence, and the War on Terrorism. Listen to it again, and watch CNN.


"Be For Real" - Written by Frederick Knight, "Be for Real" is one of two songs on the album not by Cohen. In the song, the speaker asks his girlfriend to come back to him, but only if she means it.

"Light As The Breeze" - I read an interesting psychological analysis of Leonard Cohen that made much of the fact that he is basically screwed in the head when it comes to the subject of male-female relationships. This song is a textbook example.

The song begins with a description of the love object -- images of fertility and beauty. But the male of the couple is in a posture of submission and worship. (Note the references in these stanzas -- "delta," "cradle," "river" -- that echo the Egyptian mythos. Plus the obvious sexual reference. Oi.)

She stands before you naked
you can see it, you can taste it,
and she comes to you light as the breeze.
Now you can drink it or you can nurse it,
it don't matter how you worship
as long as you're
down on your knees.
So I knelt there at the delta,
at the alpha and the omega,
at the cradle of the river and the seas.
And like a blessing come from heaven
for something like a second
I was healed and my heart
was at ease.

Note that the feeling of joy lasts "for something like a second." The song quickly turns from images of a fertile spring to those of harsh winter:

It's dark now and it's snowing
O my love I must be going,
The river has started to freeze.
And I'm sick of pretending
I'm broken from bending
I've lived too long on my knees.

(It's his own damn fault for putting her up on a pedestal in the first place! Go get a hooker!)

At the end of the song, the speaker decides to stay with this woman after all, despite the fact that what was once enriching for him has become torture:

Then she dances so graceful
and your heart's hard and hateful
and she's naked
but that's just a tease.
And you turn in disgust
from your hatred and from your love
and comes to you
light as the breeze.
So I knelt there at the delta,
at the alpha and the omega,
I knelt there like one who believes.

These two need to go into some serious couples' therapy and work out their issues.

"Always" - Another lounge-lizard turn, this one by Irving Berlin. The song is just a ditty: "I'll love you always." Ironic, considering the tone of "Light as a Breeze," which precedes it on the album.

"Tacoma Trailer" - An instrumental. Decent enough on its own.

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