You don’t need to be a music historian to know that romantic love is the predominant theme in popular music. Browse your music archive and you’ll find countless ballads and confessionals of swooning, lovesickness, and unrequited love. In most of these songs, the love is romantic love between two material beings.
But then there are instances where singer-songwriters broaden the scope of the love narrative, telling a story encompassing love between a material being and something…intangible or ineffable. Some use theological language—God, the divine, g-d, spirit, etc.—to describe this mysterious experience, and—as the history of religion testifies—often these descriptors will be anthropomorphic: they’ll metaphorically represent the divine using human attributes.
Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen are singer-songwriters, among others, who broadened the scope of love in popular songwriting. Each artist is keenly attuned to mysticism and understand that people find meaning in relation to others. Sometimes this “other” is a material being, and sometimes the “other” is ineffable—in both cases, the other is mysterious. Morrison, Dylan, and Cohen—throughout their storied careers—frequently used their songs to explore how people commune and relate to romantic and divine mystery.
Leonard Cohen is perhaps the clearest example of this. In his songwriting and poetry, he masterfully blended sex and divinity, creating a poetic atmosphere where the passion and regrets from one subject bled effortlessly into the other. Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is both an ode to orgasm and a mystic’s attempt to describe transcendence—and on both levels the song is a masterpiece. Cohen is a lustful artist, but this passion manifested itself in both romantic and divine love relationships.
Throughout his career Bob Dylan has used women in his songs as a vehicle of divine presence. Notably: “Visions of Johanna,” “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “Shelter from the Storm,” and “Red River Shore.” In these songs the divine—like the love of a former lover—is both intimately familiar yet perpetually out-of-reach.
One could argue Van Morrison’s entire career has been a prolonged and prolific dialogue with the divine. Sometimes he’s explicit—“Into the Mystic,” “Whenever God Shines His Light,” “Crazy Love”—and sometimes he’s more metaphorical—“Days Like This,” “Sweet Thing,” “And it Stoned Me,” “Celtic New Year.”
And then there are classic songs—like Cher’s “Believe”—which, on the surface, seem to be about romantic love, but, if you skim the surface, reveal themselves to be thought-provoking ballads of existential loneliness.
One interpretation of Cher’s “Believe” is that it’s an empowering break-up song.
In the song’s chorus, Cher asks: “Do you believe in life after love?” Eventually, the narrator comes to the understanding that “I know that I’ll get through this. Because I know that I am strong.”
From a different angle, you can read the song as a spiritual break-up. Do you believe in life after losing divine love?
In this way, the song looses the romantic sentiment and becomes the more idiosyncratic story of existential loneliness and carving your own path and believing in yourself after love.
I think the song is powerful enough to contain both narratives, while also having a killer beat.