At 82-years old, Leonard Cohen has released You Want It Darker, his most beautiful and haunting album in decades. Cohen seemed to put the entire world in a panic with the words, “I am ready to die” in a New Yorker feature. Human civilization simply would not be able to handle the loss of popular music’s premier poet in a devastating year where we’ve already lost Bowie and Prince. Noticing the firestorm he ignited, Cohen reassured us all in a Q&A last week that he indeed plans to live until age 120. Breathe. Best of luck, Mr. Cohen, in trying to top this album in the next 40 years of your career.
Recorded primarily in his living room and produced by his son Adam, You Want It Darker has a more wholesome sound compared to the previous two albums of this late career trilogy (Old Ideas, Popular Problems). Since the late 1970’s, Cohen has had an affinity for electronic drums, tinny keyboards, and gospel backing singers. On You Want It Darker, Adam Cohen does a tremendous job bringing his father’s gravelly voice to the forefront, accompanied often by nothing other than sparse piano (like on album-standout “Treaty”). You Want It Darker is Leonard Cohen’s most organic-feeling album in ages with no synths in sight and several returns to the Latin guitars featured on his earliest work.
The album begins with “You Want It Darker”, a phrase that is more a demand rather than a challenge that Cohen throws to his listeners. Backed by the choir and cantor from his childhood synagogue in Montreal, the title track sounds like a ceremony is taking place, and we’re all gathered to hear the words of the finest songwriting sage. The song is a reflection on mortality, with Cohen repeating the Hebrew phrase “hineni hineni (here I am, here I am) I’m ready, my Lord”. It’s a shame that we may never see Leonard Cohen tour again, as “You Want It Darker” would be fantastic in concert. Elsewhere, “On The Level” would be tremendous in a live setting, especially with Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters backing him up.
“Treaty” may go down as one of Leonard Cohen’s finest works. With nothing but a simple piano backing him up for most of the song, the focus is set squarely on Cohen’s gravelly lyrics. Ever the perfectionist (see: “Hallelujah”), “Treaty” took Cohen seven years to complete and is a longing testament to lost love. Equally remorseful and yearning, the song is littered with classic Cohen themes of religion and love. As great as Old Ideas and Popular Problems were, neither album had a line as beautiful as. “I’m so sorry for that ghost I made you be/Only one of us was real/And that was me”. The song clearly holds significance to Cohen, and You Want It Darker ends with a string reprise of “Treaty”. If this is indeed his last album, there may be no finer way for a legend to go out.
Adam Cohen deserves a great deal of recognition for the musical direction and bare sound of the album, best exemplified on “Leaving the Table”. With a nylon-string guitar gliding the listener through Cohen’s meditation on aging (“I’m leaving the table/I’m out of the game/I don’t know the people in your picture frame”), “Leaving the Table” is a searing ballad that would not feel out of place on New Skin for the Old Ceremony. The minimal sounds on the album put the focus squarely on Cohen’s words, allowing the listener to realize that, despite his age, he is a master at the height of his craft.
The two things that will stay with you from You Want It Darker are the incomparable songwriting (to be expected), and the national treasure that is Cohen’s voice. At times it’s a whisper and a grumble. Other times it’s a recipe equal parts wisdom and despair. Most of all, it is a foundation-rumbling baritone booming at you from a world that us mere disciples have not yet seen. We follow Leonard Cohen’s every word because we feel he has seen or knows something about the universe that we can never experience. We need Leonard Cohen to guide us through the darkness, and even age 120 will be too early for Cohen to leave us.