Anthem (1992) – Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen 1992

Leonard Cohen 1992

This is the 4th song from Leonard Cohen in this music library project – that’s surprising considering we have only just past the halfway point of ‘A’s in the alphabetical order listing. Anthem from his 1992 album The Future is one of his most cherished and well-regarded songs. I’m even tempted to just simply call it a ‘poem’, because these words would leap right off the page and leave their indelible mark whether he sung them or not. Also Cohen offers a highly articulate and illuminating interpretation of its meaning at the end of this post.

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

You can add up the parts
But you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march
There is no drum
Every heart, every heart
To love will come
But like a refugee

Leonard Cohen’s literary work is as essential as his music. By the time he released his 1967 debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, he had already published four poetry collections and two novels.

As a student at McGill University, Cohen’s ability for poetry was noticed and nourished by his professors, Canadian poets Irving Layton and Louis Dudek, who helped steer the young poet from youthful depictions of trysts towards more mature imagery. “I told him that his sex life was no longer a secret,” the latter recalled in a 1970 interview with the Winnepeg Free Press. Cohen, he recalled, went away “giggling,” but the next day returned with the head-turning poem, “Sparrows.” His precocious talent was unmistakable:

But what shall I tell you of migrations
when in this empty sky
the precise ghosts of departed summer birds
still trace old signs

The poem was later awarded a literary prize by McGill, who also funded Cohen’s first collection, 1957’s Let Us Compare Mythologies.

Wikipedia article regarding Leonard Cohen’s 1992 album The Future in which Anthem was released:

The album charted as high as No. 36 in the U.K. and was phenomenally successful in Canada, going gold, platinum, and double-platinum. Cohen also won the Canadian Juno Award for Best Male Vocalist in 1993 for The Future. In his acceptance speech, he quipped, “Only in Canada could somebody with a voice like mine win Vocalist of the Year.”……..In the original Rolling Stone review, Christian Wright called the album “epic”, enthusing “The Future might as easily have been a book: A more troubling, more vexing image of human failure has not been written.”

Leonard Cohen once explained the meaning of Anthem as follows:

That is the background of the whole record, I mean if you have to come up with a philosophical ground, that is “Ring the bells that still can ring.” It’s no excuse… the dismal situation.. and the future is no excuse for an abdication of your own personal responsibilities towards yourself and your job and your love. “Ring the bells that still can ring”: they’re few and far between but you can find them. “Forget your perfect offering”, that is the hang-up, that you’re gonna work this thing out. Because we confuse this idea and we’ve forgotten the central myth of our culture which is the expulsion from the garden of Eden. This situation does not admit of solution or perfection. This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, nor in your work, nor anything, nor your love of God, nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect. And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together, physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.
– from Diamonds in the Line

“The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.”- Michel Legrand

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36 comments on “Anthem (1992) – Leonard Cohen
  1. Leonard Cohen was a true poet, some of his musical lyrics are the most beautiful, for example Susanne. Thank you for the article and great link.

  2. There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in. Great Cohen stuff! The sequence of still photos throughout the video is as poetic as the song itself.

    • It is indeed great stuff. His own interpretation blew me away as well. I haven’t sat down and watched the video. I rarely watch videos set to music. I look forward to viewing it when I get home. Cheers Bruce.

    • By the way Bruce, I did watch the video and the images were very nice.
      I’m just letting you know in advance that another Enya song is coming next Thursday. I know how much you will be looking forward to that.
      Like Cohen she obviously had a fondness for the letter ‘A’.

      • I think the problem for me with Enya was the song she did for “Lord of the Rings”. I thought is was banally horrid – and she got some Hollywood gong for it. In fact most of the Lord of the Rings music didn’t amount to much. The sample pieces I submitted were much better and points to the fact that the selectors had no judgement. (Imagine this comment if I was partial to sour grapes).

      • I really didn’t want to revisit the whole Lord of the Rings subject again. But you’re telling me, they had a competition to select the best sample music for the soundtrack of Lord of the Rings? Have you released your sample pieces on the blog here or are you pulling my leg?

      • People would submit examples of their work and they selected the composer from there – or so they said. I think the guy they selected in the end was English. I submitted half a dozen extracts – this one here (played on my computer) is from a medieval plainsong tune…

      • Nice tune Bruce. That’s a good addition to the resume to say you submitted music to be the composer of the music in Lord of the Rings. Hehe
        I imagine you have seen the movie ‘Braveheart’? I played that soundtrack album to death. It reminded me of a yorkshire lass I loved and lost. Oh woe is me.

      • Yes – I saw Braveheart – but shall seek out the Yorkshire lass music.

      • I have Scottish and English heritage and while little of the movie is probably historically accurate apart from the major events I couldn’t help but drown my sorrows listening to the wonderful soundtrack.

      • I too am mainly English with one Scottish lady who got pregnant by a Cambridge don on holiday. She walked all the way from Scotland to Cambridge to demand recompense – which she got in a secret deal. And her son eventually became the boat builder for the university row boats. And all 5 grandsons got Cambridge University degrees!

      • Wow our stories sound so similar. My grandfather was a bastard son of a Lord who had an affair with his maid in Somerset. My father eventually found contact with my grandfather’s half sisters. When one of them arrived in Sydney it made the front page of the local paper. I’m gathering you are a grandson with a Cambridge degree? Or is that further up the family tree.

      • Nah – the Scottish lady married a local hick and I come down that way – we’re plumbers and blacksmiths and cotton mill workers in the main. I can only imagine which part of you is the Lord genes.

      • All of me comes from the lustful, hedonistic Lord’s genes. Haha.
        I wish I came down a line something resembling yours so I knew how to at least change a lightbulb.

      • How many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb?
        A fish.

  3. badfinger20 says:

    Beautiful lyrics…it is like a poem with a backbeat.

    • Anthem is yet another spiritual contemporary classic from the Master of that genre. As I was just telling Bruce, Cohen’s own interpretation of this song left me gobsmacked. Cohen is the polar opposite of Dylan on that front. He is very transparent about his music.

      • badfinger20 says:

        It’s a perfect song about hope…or finding it…at least that is what i get out of it.

      • I think that’s what I extrapolated from it when I first heard it because of the ‘that’s how the light gets in’ part. I now see it more aimed towards surrendering what is unassailable – that being perfection.

      • badfinger20 says:

        I saw in the comments where Bruce brought that up and it clicked. Why I didn’t notice that line before I don’t know.

      • There are many lines of Leonard that are transformational. But my two favourites are that one from Anthem –
        ‘There is a crack in everything,
        that’s how the light gets in’.

        The other from ‘Come Healing’ –
        ‘Behold the gates of mercy
        In arbitrary space
        And none of us deserving
        The cruelty or the grace’.

        You know about that conversation he had with Dylan at an Italian cafe about his writing Hallelujah and Dylan’s writing of I and I.
        Bob Dylan asked him how long it took to write “Hallelujah.” “Two years,” he told him. “I really like ‘I and I.’ How long did it take you wrote that?” Dylan told him a mere 15 minutes.

      • badfinger20 says:

        Lol I never heard about that conversation. Bob is rare in that…he just goes.

      • Yeh Dylan was blessed. Cohen spent countless hours pouring over pages until he got his song the way he wanted. He remarked about this hardship often.
        Here is a good article about the conversation in Rolling Stone and Dylan’s cover of Hallelujah:

      • badfinger20 says:

        Thank you that is great. I just wish Bob at times would have been a little more attentive to recording. He wanted to get in and out. I will say though most of the time it worked.

      • I agree it worked a treat. It’s legendary of course how he did his stuff in the studio, paying noone any mind and revamping his lyrics at the last minute.

  4. selizabryangmailcom says:

    “There is a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in”

    What a beautiful way to say “take the bitter with the sweet,” which is something my father says all the time.
    His words do leave an indelible mark……..

    • I like that ‘take the bitter with the sweet’. That’s also like something my mother and grandmother would say.
      He’s a wonderful poet our Leonard. Plenty more from him to come in the music library.

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