In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about songs that take a look at the future.
Though it’s sometimes been overstated, Leonard Cohen is synonymous with darkness: regret, isolation, the constancy of war and death. In his later albums especially, the brooding that earned him nicknames like the “Bard Of Bedsits” and the “Dr. Kevorkian Of Song” began to turn outward, to dwell on the whole fucked-up world. By the time of his 1992 album The Future, Cohen—whose self-imposed nickname was Field Commander Cohen, and who often ended his concerts with a military salute—was surveying the damage from afar, offering his dour assessment of the ruins laid out before him.
The title track of The Future in particular ranks among Cohen’s most pessimistic, even for a guy who previously walked his listeners through a “Dress Rehearsal Rag” for slitting their wrists. Over the gentle synth-pop and female-chorus coos that defined his ’90s sound, Cohen lays out an apocalyptic vision supposedly inspired by the L.A. riots—a culturally bereft world that’s slid into complete chaos and turpitude, where the human soul has been destroyed by vices and selfishness, our streets are on fire and our trees extinct, and the only response is a sort of resigned, bitter shrug. “Give me crack and anal sex,” Cohen sneers, suggesting we goosestep this social collapse all the way back to the Berlin Wall and Stalin. “I’ve seen the future, brother,” Cohen says wearily. “It is murder.”
With all its talk of repentance, “The Future” could be read as Cohen moralizing—and has been, particularly in regard to a final verse that links abortion to our downfall. After all, he offers a choice between giving him Christ or Hiroshima that suggests there’s only two options: being saved or being obliterated. But that’s too easy of a read for a man who would declare in his concerts of that era that “the apocalypse has already occurred,” or for a song whose gallows humor assessment of a world beyond redemption earned it a place (alongside the same album’s “Waiting For The Miracle” and “Anthem”) in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.
Like much of the present—and the past—Cohen also sings about, “The Future” is dark, but it’s not without a glimmer of light: “Love’s the only engine of survival,” he says, offering us one stubborn ray of hope. “The Future” is a prophecy of an end that’s already arrived, but we still have the means to find a way forward.