When I was recently asked about Red Earth & Rust’s musical influences, I automatically thought of Leonard Cohen. Then I stopped short: I couldn’t think of a song on our recent double album that sounded a bit like any of his tunes.
In fact Cohen’s influence is all over our music, especially in the lyrics. Tonight I hear it particularly in a song called Broken Ground, a tender, understated piece in the middle of Wrestling the Angel: “We spread our love sheet on broken ground / Dark night unwinding above us / You and me and the night / Naked starlight to cover us.”
For at least four decades Cohen has given us metaphors for beauty that embraces and absorbs imperfection. Suzanne shows us to look “among the garbage and the flowers”; Anthem acknowledges: “Every heart, every heart to love will come / But like a refugee.” One of my own favourites is a song called Heart With No Companion, a post-apocalyptic number from 1984’s Various Positions: “I greet you from the other side / Of sorrow and despair / With a love so vast and shattered / It will reach you everywhere.”
The song is dedicated to everything that is unfinished in all of us: “And I sing this for the captain / Whose ship has not been built / For the mother in confusion / Her cradle still unfilled / For the heart with no companion / For the soul without a king / For the prima ballerina / Who cannot dance to anything.” Cohen’s language here transforms failure and loss into triumphs of the imagination. We recognize the captain, the mother and the ballerina in the absence of ships, children and movement. It is only because the speaker’s love has been shattered – exposed to the disappointments of life - that it can reach the listener.
There are other Red Earth & Rust songs I could mention here: in Jonny Blundell we are told: “Something’s got to die to break death’s spell”, and in Broken Voice, from our Look For Me album, I ask someone who is never identified to call me in a “beautiful, broken voice.”
But tonight it is Broken Ground that conjures Cohen’s austere compassion most clearly for me. It ends on an image of love compared to “a simple white sail / Haunted by wind …” And yet, in spite of this suggestion of being adrift in the night, the song is grounded both by the double bass and descending piano and viola chords and by the lyric: the ground on which the love sheet has been spread may be broken, with all the discomfort that entails, but it is also out in the open, close to the spinning earth and the night unwinding in the sky.
The song ends quietly on an unresolved chord, and it feels appropriate. All the contradictions remain, but for this moment there is strength to contain them.