Track-by-track review of You Want It Darker by Leonard Cohen
The Montreal bard's 14th studio album may or may not be his last, but in its valedictory way, it's one of his finest
The manifold awfulnesses of 2016 have in recent weeks threatened to become compounded by the suggestion that Leonard Cohen's new album – his 14th studio record, and the follow-up to 2014's Popular Problems – might also be his last. That he may, in fact, be in such terminal decline at the age of 82 that You Want It Darker is his equivalent of David Bowie's mighty but tragic Blackstar, a record written in the knowledge that it might probably be its creator's last. 'I don't think I'll be able to finish those songs,' said Cohen doomily in a New Yorker profile, discussing his unfinished work. 'Maybe, who knows? And maybe I'll get a second wind, I don't know. But I don't dare attach myself to a spiritual strategy. I am ready to die. I hope it's not too uncomfortable. That's about it for me.' Yet in recent days he backtracked on those words. 'I think I was exaggerating,' he said at a launch event for the album, which is produced by his son Adam. 'One is given to self-dramatisation from time to time. I intend to live forever.' His fans, as ever, will hunt for clues in his masterfully opaque lyrics.
'You Want it Darker'
'I struggled with some demons, they were middle class and tame / I didn't know I had permission to murder and to maim,' murmurs Cohen in a subsonic growl which would frighten off even Lee Hazlewood fans, while in the background there's a funereal air. A religious funeral at that, with choral chanting and soul-caressing pipe organ sounds, the former provided by Montreal's Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir, evoking the sounds of Cohen's youth. He is, after all, a man who's tussled with his own religious conviction for decades, having retired to a Buddhist monastery in the 1990s, briefly flirted with Scientology in the 1970s, and remained close to the Jewish faith of his youth. Majestically, the lyric here seems to tie up these themes, renouncing within a few words his own comfortable spiritual fumblings through to the dogma of religious fundamentalism, as well as any faith adapted by human minds ('if you are the dealer / then I'm out of the game') in favour of an abandonment to fate and the unknowable. 'I'm ready … my lord,' he whispers finally, lending weight to the sense that this is his Blackstar, a deserved postscript to a mighty career, and one pleasingly written and released while Cohen remains alive.
A sense of the religious reappears within the first few words, as Cohen addresses an unnamed other who can apparently transmute water into wine and back again. Once more, over slowly surging strings and piano, the sense is of a fatigued but zen-like sense of acceptance, this time apparently with a lover who is at once his bane ('I do not care who takes this bloody hill / I'm angry and I'm tired all the time') and the guiding force of his life, his 'safe and sound'. Some listeners may also be drawn to remember the late Marianne Ihlen, Cohen's former lover and muse, who inspired 'So Long Marianne' and died in July; 'I'm so sorry for that ghost I made you be … I haven't said a word since you've been gone / that any liar couldn't say as well.'
'On the Level'
The looping piano notes of this song's first few seconds recall Sinatra's 'My Way', but in the end Cohen opts for something far less bombastic yet equally surprising. The chorus breaks into an airy, pastoral kind of country rock balladry, reminiscent of The Band backing Dylan with shuddering guitar lines, sweeping Hammond riffs and a lovely gospel vocal accompaniment. It sounds gorgeous, although perhaps the sense of regretful acceptance in the face of a lifetime of religious and romantic paths taken isn't quite as well-developed as on the preceding songs. Still, even Cohen's throwaway lines are masterful and definitive: 'I'm old and I've had to settle on a different point of view / I was fighting with temptation but I didn't wanna win.' Many say he should have won the Nobel Prize instead of Dylan. 'It's like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain,' said Cohen of his respected friend's award.
'Leaving the Table'
It begins on the peal of a reverberating slide guitar, the shuffle of a brush on the skin of a drum, and one of this album's most devastating couplets in 'I'm leaving the table / I'm out of the game'. In a clever sleight of hand, Cohen's not resigning from life, but rather the ladies' man game. 'I don't need a lover, no no no / the wretched beast is tamed,' he croons, breathing out the weight of a life so well-lived that regret and satisfaction must have found a way to co-exist somehow; and if they did, it sounds like this.
'If I Didn't Have Your Love'
A few adjectives have kept springing to mind throughout every song so far, and most of them apply here: mournful; reflective; bittersweet. Yet 'If I Didn't Have Your Love's soft-spun, shuffling balladry contains some of the least complex sentiments, as sober organ lines find Cohen imagining a procession of apocalyptic scenarios ('if the sun would lose its light / and we lived an endless night') comparable to the absence of love in his life.
Again, it's another grand finale of a song, whose lyrics hit with the finality of a dropping coffin lid; 'I'm traveling light / it's au revoir … I'm running late / they'll close the bar.' Yet in the shivering flamenco guitar, the seductive female 'la-la-la's in the background and Cohen's voice itself, somehow infused with a newfound questing virility, the suggestion begins that these aren't actually songs about the end of life after all, but the end of love, and the question of whether it's worth moving on to a new one. The end of a love, or the end of love itself equalling the end of life, it makes no difference. There's life in the old dog yet.
'It Seemed the Better Way'
'At first he touched on love / then he touched on death / it sounded like the truth.' Another track which deserves the description 'funereal': a loose assemblage of gently hit drums, measured violin and Cohen's voice so close it crackles. Amid a lyric which gently, teasingly questions everything – particularly his religious conviction – those few words could be the ones upon which the whole record is built, with which Cohen at once interrogates and finds answer to his purpose as an artist. As trite as it may sound, the spirituality he might search for in a god is found by many in his music, and the pair are intertwined.
'Steer Your Way'
More than any track on this album, a sense of urgency is achieved, but it's all relative. Slicing strings accompany Cohen's reminiscing over a life's worth of trials navigated 'thought by thought'; none more so than 'the women that you bought' and the past belief that 'fundamental goodness' exists. It's not triumphant, but neither is it maudlin. We're trying not to put too much stock in any sense of finality here, for no lives of careers have come to an end, but any of us who can reach Cohen's age and find such graceful apparent contentment with the regrets and the journey of their life will be doing well.
'String Reprise – Treaty'
In this final track, the second song on the album is revisited as a haunting string arrangement, and Cohen repeats the chorus one last time in an aching sigh. 'I think I will follow you very soon,' Cohen wrote to Ihlen before she died. 'Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.' These words would make a mighty epitaph, but should that second wind not come, then 'I wish there was a treaty / between your love and mine' may be the final words Cohen commits to record. Such finality may, as he says, be exaggerated, but there's little doubt that this masterfully composed record would be a striking note on which to end.
You Want It Darker is out now on Columbia.