Leonard Cohen – “Anthem” Lyrics Meaning

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Written By Joanna Landrum

Joanna holds a BSc in English Literature and uses her expertise in literary analysis to uncover the deeper meaning of her favorite songs.

“Anthem” is a song steeped in philosophical wisdom and poetic beauty. It’s about finding hope amidst despair recognizing that imperfection is a natural part of life. The song imparts a powerful message: Embrace your flaws, as they are the very channels through which beauty and light enter the world. Cohen uses the song to reflect on broader human experiences and societal issues. His motivation for writing “Anthem” likely stemmed from a desire to provide comfort and perspective during times of personal and collective turmoil.

Ever wondered about the beauty in broken things? Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” is an exploration of this idea, revealing how our imperfections are gateways to grace and light. It’s a song that delves into the heart of human experience, offering a unique perspective on life’s imperfect journey.

“Anthem” Lyrics Meaning

“The birds they sang / At the break of day / Start again / I heard them say,” suggest a theme of renewal and resilience. Cohen is urging us to start afresh, despite past failures or the uncertainty of the future.

The line “Don’t dwell on what has passed away / Or what is yet to be” echoes this sentiment, encouraging a focus on the present rather than being trapped by past regrets or future worries. This idea is a cornerstone in many philosophical and spiritual teachings, emphasizing mindfulness and the power of the present moment.

The chorus, “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in,” is perhaps the most iconic part of the song. Here, Cohen acknowledges that nothing in life is perfect – everything has its flaws. Yet, it is precisely these flaws and cracks that allow light, or understanding, beauty, and growth, to enter our lives. This powerful metaphor challenges the pursuit of perfection, proposing that true beauty and wisdom come from embracing imperfection.

As the song progresses, Cohen touches on themes of political and social injustice, hinting at the ongoing struggles and conflicts in the world. The lines “The holy dove, she will be caught again / Bought and sold, and bought again / The dove is never free” symbolize the recurring cycles of conflict and the elusive nature of peace.

The verse “We asked for signs / The signs were sent” suggests a spiritual or existential seeking for meaning, while “the widowhood / Of every government” might be interpreted as a commentary on the failure of political systems to provide lasting solutions.

In the latter part of the song, Cohen reflects on the individual’s powerlessness in the face of larger societal forces, but also hints at a personal resolve to speak out or take a stand, as indicated in “But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up / A thundercloud / They’re going to hear from me.”

The Story Behind “Anthem”

The creation of “Anthem” is intertwined with Leonard Cohen’s own journey through life’s ups and downs. Known for his somber themes, Cohen wrote this song during a period marked by personal struggles and global turmoil. His state of mind was reflective, contemplative, and deeply influenced by his lifelong exploration of spirituality and human nature.

Cohen’s lyrics often delve into the complexities of love, faith, politics, and existential despair. In “Anthem,” these themes converge into a message of hope and acceptance. The song was likely born from Cohen’s observations of a world rife with imperfections, conflicts, and injustices. Yet, instead of succumbing to cynicism, Cohen chooses to find beauty and hope in the brokenness.

His Buddhist beliefs and Jewish heritage also played a significant role in shaping the philosophical underpinnings of the song. The idea that there is a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in, resonates with the Buddhist concept of finding wisdom in impermanence and the Jewish tradition of seeking light in the darkness.

Throughout his career, Cohen grappled with depression, and this too, influenced his songwriting. “Anthem” can be seen as a beacon of light amidst his struggles, a song that finds a silver lining in the cloud of despair. Cohen’s personal battles, combined with his keen observation of the world, culminated in this poignant anthem that speaks to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of life’s inevitable challenges.