Leonard Cohen’s latest- and final- album is, for my money, some of the Canadian songwriter/poet’s best work. Full of songs ruminating on love and god, death and darkness, it’s a shame I can only pick one to write about in this article. However, while I’d recommend giving the whole album a listen (especially the title track), the song I’m going to write about today is track three on the album, Treaty.
Cohen’s great skill is his bleak, brutal but beautiful lyricism- something which comes through right from the beginning of Treaty.
“I’ve seen you change the water into wine/ I’ve seen you change it back to water to/ I sit at your table every night/ I try, but I just can’t get high with you.”
There’s plenty of interpretations of this- religious, redemptive, artistic- but I see it as an exploration of a fading friendship. The first two lines speak of the value a friendship can add to life, and how quickly that value can be whipped away, while the last two could refer to two people being intimately connected, but somehow unable to reach each other. The strongest evocation of this theme, however, comes in the chorus:
“I wish there was a treaty we could sign/ I do not care who takes this bloody hill/ I’m angry and I’m tired all the time/ I wish there was a treaty/ I wish there was a treaty/ between your love and mine.”
Which of us hasn’t thought this, when suffering through the end of a doomed friendship? Who hasn’t wished for a set of easily understandable rules (the “treaty” Cohen refers to in the song) by which to understand how to relate to another person?
The message of the song, however, seems to be that this treaty does not exist. The most poetic passage of Treaty comes near the end:
“I heard the snake was baffled by his sin/ He shed his skin to find the snake within/ But born again is born without a skin/ The poison enters in to everything.”
Even as Cohen laments the end of his friendship, he seems to discount the possibility of either party changing their ways. The first three lines speak of confusion, futility, internal chaos- something that anyone who’s ever participated in a failed attempt at self-improvement is likely to be familiar with. By contrast, the last line is incredibly clear in its meaning (remember what I said about bleakness?)
In many ways, Treaty parallells Cohen’s best-known song, Hallelujah. Both concern themselves with doomed, struggling relationships, and underlay their lyrics with heavy religious undertones. The difference is, while in Hallelujah there’s potential for positivity, or at least hope in Cohen’s lyrics (“there’s a blaze of light in every word/ It doesn’t matter which you heard/ The holy, or the broken Hallelujah”), there exists no such silver lining in Treaty.
So whether you’re a fan of poetry, interested in human relationships, or just looking for something to slit your wrists to, Treaty is a darkly-glittering gem in a bleakly brilliant crown.