Artist: Leonard Cohen
Album: You Want It Darker
Release Date: 10/21/2016
Media sure was quick to pounce when Leonard Cohen recently proclaimed to the New Yorker he was “ready to die.”
But while Cohen’s latest release is certainly funereal, it’s not a funeral album. In other words, he’s not dead yet.
Still, when Cohen says “You want it darker,” it’s not a question, it’s an assertion. After all, this musical visionary has danced this musical dance for ages – wavering constantly between solemnness and somberness. If you couldn’t pick this up from tracks like “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Avalanche” and “Everybody Knows” by now, then you’ll be baffled by his newly-released, 14th studio album. I thought Tom Waits’ Blood Money, Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut and Peter Gabriel’s Up were dark. Boy, what did I know?
But it’s important to realize that darkness – as embodied by Cohen – can be tender and passionate as well. Cohen, replete with a full-blown croaky voice, is selling snake oil here like a truly poetic snake. His vocals slither over 36 minutes, entangling us as we get caught up in the finality of his lyrics – is he saying farewell to life? His career? His being? This is the mystery that makes You Want It Darker appealing. If Cohen does leave us, and this is his last recorded effort, then he goes out fully on his terms, uncompromising and unflinching in his vulnerability and honesty.
Really, You Want It Darker is a terrific bookend to Cohen’s 1979 Recent Songs album. Instrumentation is sparse and at times unnecessary. In fact, Darker’s music is the kind Cohen wanted from the get-go on his debut album 50 years earlier. A lyric in Darker track “Treaty” states, “It’s over now, the water and the wine;” quite the opposite of “And no one knows why the wine is flowing” from “The Guests.”
“I’m ready my Lord,” Cohen states-sings matter-of-factly on the album’s opening title track – a tune that stylistically has three-hour synagogue service written all over it. Ready for what, I wonder? Knowing Cohen, it’s gonna be big, whatever it is.
“On The Level” contains a great slow burning groove as Cohen sings about burning bridges: “Turned my back on the devil, turned my back on the angel too.” On “Leaving the Table,” Cohen admits defeat: “I’m out of the game, I don’t know the people in your picture frame. If I ever loved you, it’s a crying shame.” It’s not until song six, “Traveling Light” that a vocal lift appears from background vocalists Dana Glover and bluegrass sensation Alison Kruass. It’s short-lived though, as Cohen, early on, indicates this is his “au revoir.”
Ironically, the album’s darkest moment comes in its final track, an amalgam of “Treaty” and lush string arrangement. This hits the Recent Songs connection out of the park, as “one by one, the guests arrive, the guests are coming through” immediately springs to mind. It’s inevitable that you’ll conjure up the image of the end, however peaceful it might seem on the surface.
Yet Darker’s solace lies in the fact it also embodies a standout Cohen lyric on Recent Songs: “I came so far for beauty and left so much behind.”
In this case, mission truly accomplished.