All around the world is going mad. Regimes we have armed, funded and cosied up to are now being threatened with war crimes trials. The victors always implement the ‘justice’ and write the histories. So far, anyway. And the prophets warn that justice will one day be done.
Not for the first time, the epic lines of Leonard Cohen penetrate the fog of misery. Having growled his way through the list of drugs he had taken over the years, he concluded with a mischievous light in his eyes:
I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies and religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through… There ain’t no cure for love.
Like Cohen’s ‘cheerfulness’, beauty has a habit of breaking in when the darkness and ugliness of human cruelties seem to dominate our consciousness. Today, for me, it has come through two wonderful albums.
I once wrote of 19 year old Alexandra Burke‘s X Factor version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah that such a young person can’t possibly sing such a song. The depth of experience beneath the lyric and the haunting loveliness of the music demand the lived-in voice of someone more mature – someone who has lived and lost and loved and longed and languished. (Sorry!) I got heavily criticised for voicing such a heresy – mainly by 19 year olds. But today I have listened properly to Adele‘s 21.
Like with all the great poets, it is the agonies and losses that seem to produce the most beautiful art. Her acoustic performance at the Brits showed how exposed a musician can be – nowhere to hide and all the intimacy laid bare for all to see. I don’t know how she does it. But this stripped-back perfomance of one of her most moving songs just gives a hint of what lies in the rest of the album. And when you have listened to this, try Don’t You Remember.
The second album is categorised as ‘folk’, but it is more than that. Again, the lyrics are infused with the yearning for love and the pain of loss. Yet, they also reach out for the idea of ‘grace’. Like Leonard Cohen’s grasp of ‘true religion and virtue’ (Book of Common Prayer) – when he sings in Hallelujah:
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah…
… Mumford & Sons depict the reality of life for most people who live and love and mess it up a million times, yet long for redemption – for the freedom to start again. They touch on the difficulty of being grasped by the notion of grace despite not being able to comprehend its scandalous generosity – a generosity that transcends even justice.
In the title track Sigh No More we hear (with a confident and defiant accompaniment):
My heart was never pure
And you know me
And man is a giddy thing
Oh man is a giddy thing
Love it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you,
It will set you free
Be more like the man you were made to be.
There is a design, an alignment, a cry,
Of my heart to see
The beauty of love as it was made to be.
Later, in Roll Away Your Stone (with its obvious biblical associations), we hear:
Roll away your stone, I’ll roll away mine
Together we can see what we will find
Don’t leave me alone at this time
For I’m afraid of what I will discover inside
‘Cause you told me that I would find a hole
Within the fragile substance of my soul
And I have filled this void with things unreal
And all the while my character it steals
Darkness is a harsh term don’t you think
Yet it dominates the things I see
It seems that all my bridges have been burned
But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart
But the welcome I receive with the restart
This beautiful album shows that – again, in Leonard Cohen’s words – the cracks are where the light gets in. The well-armoured or self-righteous person is ignorant of grace; the cracks are covered up for fear and nothing will break in – not love, not light and not grace.
Adele and Mumford & Sons open the gaps in the darkness and let the shafts of unmerited beauty drift in.