Leonard Cohen – Thanks for the Dance (4 stars)

Leonard Cohen – Thanks for the Dance

Posthumous album from the poet and singer is sombre, contemplative and hopeful

In the advance press release for this fifteenth album – and first posthumous record – by rock music's most sexually-charged renaissance gentleman, a beautiful idea is presented; that with its release, Leonard Cohen has had the final word over death. Thanks for the Dance is no hastily-assembled cuts package of whatever could be found around the studio, but a selection of songs which Cohen was at work on when he died in 2016, and which have been finished off by his son and latter-day musical collaborator Adam.

Just as David Bowie's Blackstar charted Bowie's knowledge of his own death in a manner which rocked expectations and made it his best and most acclaimed album in decades, so too did Cohen's outstanding final album (or so we thought) You Want It Darker offer an apparently definitive statement on his own mortality and legacy in the months before his death. To listen to Thanks for the Dance is a different experience to both of the above; an album for the later stages of grief, and a path towards acceptance that when a death occurs, it means that somebody once lived.

Adam Cohen describes this record as 'a continuation' of the last, although Thanks for the Dance bears more of what might be termed 'celebrity guests' than any other Leonard Cohen album, with Beck appearing on Jew's harp, and backing vocals including those of Leslie Feist, Jennifer Warnes, Damian Rice and the Staves' Jessica Staveley-Taylor. Yet all are subtle and unobtrusive; this is an album on which the music, whether sombre or hopeful, stays out of the way and lets the focus remain on Cohen's voice and lyrics.

In 'Happens to the Heart' he muses upon the emotional implications of courtship, affairs and the act of creation ('…I never called it art / it was just some old convention, like the horse before the cart'); amid the intimate, husky-voiced 'Moving On', a wry epilogue to a lovers' split might be interpreted as the farewell of death; and amid the tense, lower-key strum of 'The Night of Santiago' is one final, heated growl of a sexual fantasy/reminiscence in which 'the night surrenders to a daffodil machete' and Cohen/his narrator pledges, ' You were born to judge the world / forgive me but I wasn't.'

The title track is another farewell to a lover and to life, this one in a romantic waltz time, and the thread which Cohen keeps coming back to throughout the album – or which the younger Cohen has drawn out – tells us two things; that the end of an affair as metaphor for the end of a life is a potent one, and that final days bring ever-more potent memories of love. Or perhaps that only happens if you're Leonard Cohen, but there's much that universally resonates in this record's unflinching portrayal of mortality.

'The Goal' is short and bittersweet, a snapshot of elder life where 'the neighbour returns my smile of defeat' and the only life lesson is 'the goal falls short of the reach', while 'The Hills' is a painkiller-anaesthetised slow waltz towards the end, which briefly rises upon the hope that a new birth – perhaps a child or a grandchild – will carry on his work. Sandwiched between these is 'Puppets', as mournful and bitter as any takedown of those with political power ever written by Cohen, which makes explicit reference to the horror of the Holocaust.

Almost the entirety of the record is subdued and contemplative, but there's more darkness and desperation in the second half compared to the reminiscing of the first, leavened only by the ambient closing mantra 'Listen to the Hummingbird' and its implicit recognition that Cohen's life has been spent channelling the emotion and wonder of the world around him. 'Listen to the mind of God,' he implores. 'Listen to the hummingbird / don't listen to me.' If there is no more where this came from, then at least every last drop was sublime.

Thanks for the Dance is out now on Columbia.

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