Some dichotomies never get old. And the dichotomy of the sacred and the profane is a great example of this. In Cohen’s tune, the idea of spiritual ministrations and sexual ones are mingled, and pretty much become unidentifiable from each other by the end. Who are the sisters of mercy? Nuns? Hookers? It doesn’t matter.
They are a healing agent for the weary traveler, the trail-worn wanderer. They bring their comfort, and later “bring this song”, which equals clarity perhaps, along with the revitalizing energies of sexual release and/or spiritual renewal. It’s this type of idea which drives a lot of Cohen’s work. But, this is my favourite song of his, when his brittle monotone is the only voice that makes sense, given the subject matter here. This is a careworn vagabond, taking refuge, and in finding comfort passing along his experience to another like him. That his voice sounds so down to earth, and so world weary too completely sells the song.
Even Cohen didn’t consider himself much of a singer. He was a writer, primarily. In some ways, his career was an inversion of singer-songwriters at the end of the Sixties. He didn’t aspire to literary heights with his songs, because he’d already gained those credentials as a poet and novelist. He was not a native musician or songwriter, although he’d learned to play guitar and was in a number of amateur bands on the side while developing his true craft as a poet. But, Cohen makes this his strength. Being in the literary world, a lot of the given influences of pop music didn’t affect his approach. And so, he made himself a true original.
“Sisters of Mercy” became something of countercultural anthem, a tale of free love and itinerancy. And in so doing, it became a part of the new Hollywood too, used in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a re-imagining of the Western movie genre, and a reassessment of the legend of the West which lays at the heart of the American identity. Cohen would continue to have an impact as a songwriter, raising the bar for all singer-songwriters in the process.
For more information about Leonard Cohen, check out http://www.leonardcohen.com/