Avalanche: the pinnacle of literary songwriting

Some songs wow us with powerful, strident lyrics that take a political or emotional stand. Others lead with instrumentation, letting the lyrics take a back seat or omitting them altogether. Sometimes — quite rarely — the lyrics and instrumentation come together seamlessly, creating an unforgettable experience that speaks both to our minds and ears.

Yet for a form of art that has its roots in poetry, popular music is rarely literary. Songs are usually too short, too sparse, too hurried or just too simplistic to develop the rich threads of figurative meaning that can be found in novels, in the visual arts, or even — in a sense — in symphonies. Songs that attempt to “make a point” often do so in clumsily direct fashion, leaving us with surface-level screeds that do a good job of telling us what the artist thinks, but fail to make us think. Songs are not interpreted so much as they are received — passively, while we are driving to work or drifting off to sleep or (for the true multitaskers) reading. So the exceedingly rare piece of popular music that nests its themes in metaphors, symbolic imagery, poetic language and ambiguity, all while engrossing the listener in a masterful sonic landscape, is a towering accomplishment.

Love or hate? Avalanche has both.

Today, I want to talk about one such accomplishment: Avalanche by Leonard Cohen, released in 1971 on his Songs of Love and Hate album. Before I say anything else, I’ve included the lyrics below. Do yourself a favor and give it a listen before continuing. In this age of YouTube and Spotify, you have no excuse!

Well I stepped into an avalanche
It covered up my soul
When I am not this hunchback that you see
I sleep beneath the golden hill
You who wish to conquer pain
You must learn, learn to serve me well

You strike my side by accident
As you go down for your gold
The cripple here that you clothe and feed
Is neither starved nor cold
He does not ask for your company
Not at the centre, the centre of the world

When I am on a pedestal
You did not raise me there
Your laws do not compel me
To kneel grotesque and bare
I myself am the pedestal
For this ugly hump at which you stare

You who wish to conquer pain
You must learn what makes me kind
The crumbs of love that you offer me
They’re the crumbs I’ve left behind
Your pain is no credential here
It’s just the shadow, shadow of my wound

I have begun to long for you
I who have no greed
I have begun to ask for you
I who have no need
You say you’ve gone away from me
But I can feel you when you breathe

Do not dress in those rags for me
I know you are not poor
And don’t love me quite so fiercely now
When you know that you are not sure
It is your turn, beloved
It is your flesh that I wear

This is a song that will mean something different to everyone who hears it. A Christian will identify with its apparent references to Jesus, while a Jew might recognize “the golden hill” as a reference to Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. A closer listen will suggest that what at first seems to be a conversation between God and a lowly vagrant might actually be the vagrant talking to himself, a reading that might appeal to an atheist or agnostic. Seizing on that reading, a Buddhist might interpret the song as a struggle between a man’s worldly self and the true, universal nature of his being. And, of course, anyone with any belief system might subscribe to all or none of these approaches — Cohen himself explored Judaism, Buddhism, and elements of Christianity throughout his life.

But despite the wide variety of potential interpretations, do not make the mistake of thinking Avalanche is copping out by avoiding a straightforward reading. The song, after all, is about uncertainty. The narrator is an “ugly hump” and a “cripple” one minute, and the next he is an enlightened being with no need for such concerns as food or warm clothing.

The cripple here that you clothe and feed
Is neither starved nor cold
He does not ask for your company
Not at the center, the center of the world

The narrator himself is engaged in the act of interpretation, though in this case he is interpreting his own body, his own soul, his own personality.

If it’s not clear by now, I’m in the camp that believes the narrator is one man, divided in two. There is the god-like, spiritually fulfilled man (some might prefer to call this his soul) who issues commands with the authority of a higher being:

Do not dress in those rags for me
I know you are not poor

Then there is the physical person, the body, which the narrator constantly disparages and degrades until, in the penultimate stanza, he makes a surprising admission:

I have begun to long for you
I who have no greed
I have begun to ask for you
I who have no need
You say you’ve gone away from me
But I can feel you when you breathe

Again, there are many ways one could interpret this section. But we can also make a few eliminations: If this is God’s voice, references to longing and asking don’t seem to make much sense. Conversely, if this is a man talking to God, the man’s claims that he has no greed or need seem oddly divine, or at least awfully prideful, and they don’t square with the self-loathing manner in which he disparages his body. But if this is the figurative soul talking to the body, the fog clears. Spiritual fulfillment, it turns out, is not enough for the narrator. He needs the body, even though spiritual discipline has supposedly rid him of greed or need. Quite literally, he feels his body when it breathes, which reminds him that he can never truly free himself from the constraints of a physical existence.

This is also one of the most emotionally resonant parts of the song; no matter your interpretation, hearing Cohen’s delivery of I can feel you when you breathe, followed by the gentle but unstoppable undercurrent of classical guitar, conjure an indelible image of something important and hopelessly delicate floating just out of reach on a breeze — or, perhaps, on a breath.

Moving onward, my interpretation is backed up by the final two lines of the song, which are also its most ambiguous:

It is your turn, beloved
It is your flesh that I wear

If the narrator is indeed two halves of the same man, then it makes sense to say that his soul is “wearing” the flesh of the body, as oddly horrific as it sounds on a first listen. Carrying on the admission of need from the previous stanza, the man’s spiritual self has decided to allow the body to coexist — not as a “hump” or “cripple,” but as a partner, if not an equal.

This is all to say nothing of the orchestration of the song, which perfectly uses Cohen’s voice as its own instrument. Cohen’s steady but angry growl projects both hope and despair in equal measure, and a subtle but powerful violin backing helps the piece build emotional momentum as it approaches its conclusion. And the fragile strumming of classical guitar always seems close to falling apart under its own weight, suggesting (to the imaginative, perhaps) the frailty of the body as a container for the mind and spirit.

The sum total is a masterpiece, a song that traverses the depths of human existence with all the skill of an epic poem, and I’m skeptical that we will ever see its equal.

What’s your favorite example of literary songwriting? Let me know in the comments!

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