On first listen, Leonard Cohen's album You Want it Darker
is a great album. On second listen, it could rank among his best and on third listen, it is obvious that it is the best contender for a Nobel Prize in literature in the next turn of awards. But so are the other albums that have preceded it. It is astonishing that Cohen as an elder statesman is producing some of his best work at this stage of his career. You Want it Darker
is the third studio album since he returned to active duty, apart from the live records from his mammoth tours in recent years, and starting from Old Ideas
(Columbia, 2012) he has been releasing records every two years Popular Problems,
(Columbia, 2014) since then. You Want it Darker
is a work reflective of an artist still hungry for exploration and Cohen is still striking out into strange new places rather than recycling his past. Cohen tells small stories about beginnings and endings of relationships, sprinkled with enough details for listeners to fill in the gaps on their own. As always, he continues to face mortality on this record and what it means to him as years, months or days tick by. You Want it Darker
is a close rumination on this notion in the chorus of the title song, "Hineni, Hineni, I'm Ready My Lord" (a response by Abraham when God had called on him to sacrifice his son Isaac). By his own words, it is a declaration of readiness no matter what the outcome might be. There are enough philosophical references and nuances not just for this tale to serve as a metaphor for something bigger but for others as well. Cohen's caustic baritone is a rich and rare thing to behold on these songs. It is simultaneously sad and knowing, graceful and deep. There is a shade of a fragile weariness and because of that, the songs are like a work of breath-holding drama. "Treaty" is almost like a forensic examination of love's demise. It's a graceful rumination reportage on the last flickers of a doomed relationship that he delivers with a stinging intimacy:
"And I wish there was a treaty we could sign/ I do not care who takes this bloody hill/ I'm angry and I'm tired all the time/ I wish there was a treaty/ I wish there was a treaty/ Between your love and mine."
"On the Level" welcomes back his old writing partner, singer, and producer Sharon Robinson. Her melodic touch and a gospel-like music add a graceful feel to his almost regretful, diary-like, but never overbearing, lyrics. The words are not pessimistic or fatalistic, just regretful to the point where the truth really hurts. His singing gets more powerful as the album progresses, achieving a magnificent throaty soulfulness on "If I Didn't Have Your Love." This song offers a glimmer of light and hope. His lyrics here aren't just poetic but are as well full of tiny details that at first may seem ordinary or mundane, but nevertheless, carry a lot of emotional weight. This song is also a canvas for Cohen's most elegant strokes of wordplay:
If the sun would lose its light /And we lived in an endless night/ And there was nothing left that you could feel /If the sea were sand alone /And the flowers made of stone /And no one that you hurt could ever heal /Well that's how broken I would be / What my life would seem to me / If I didn't have your love to make it real
"Travelling Light" is a cheerful collage of sounds that starts folkish and then turns into a "la la" melody much in the manner of "Dance Me To The End of Love." There are also some shades of blues in there. "Steer Your Way" is a playful tune with country-ish violin riffs that though cheerful are performed through his meditative, slow-paced style. The set ends with a rendition of "Treaty" with a strings quartet that captures an exquisite melancholy of the song.
The arrangements on You Want it Darker
are simple and sparse, where everything is lightly touched with not so many instrumental colors to dilute the overall sound picture and his deep and clear voice. This is wonderfully subtle artistry that reveals more the deeper you go into it. Credit must be given to producers Adam Cohen and Patrick Leonard for patiently helping Leonard Cohen achieve another masterpiece. Due to a serious back injury, and his immobility and physical pain he was unable to attend most of the sessions for this record and at one point he even had abandoned it. It was his son's persistence who got him working on it again. The end result is this beautiful collection of songs that are ultimately and admirably patient and fluid, building not to grandiloquent climaxes but to a greater and greater complexity of meaning.
But, You Want it Darker
is more than that. The lyrics are infused with feelings of mortality and are full of benedictions and farewells. It is also a collection of reflections and ruminations about life and loss in the modern world, hope and light, subtle humor and irony. With Cohen, the idea of him singing about mortality has certainly turned into a cliché, but haven't we all ruminated about our inevitable end? Then there is that voice, deep and emotive, and with a sound and resonance that evokes and instigates complex emotions behind these lyrics. Certainly, every tune on this album and every other one he has ever written contain references to inner conflicts in a conscious or subconscious manner. Pop music has always been kinder to musicians who portray struggle than ease, and it has been nicer and open to emotional engagement than detachment. For the most part, the ambiance suggests an intimate conversation, between Cohen and the listener. The nine pieces here provide candid glimpses into Cohen that can be interpreted in many ways. It's a hushed meditation on many things but lament and grief are not one of them.
It is evident that Cohen still has the power to thrill and disturb. You Want it Darker
is the sound and words by a great artist who approaches the twilight of his career and life with fearless creativity. Halfway through the writing of this review, the venerable Leonard Cohen passed away. Much like singer David Bowie
, it seems that he has as well made his farewell masterpiece but without making a secret that he is seeing the end of the road. There were indications like the touching letter to his muse Marianne or the last interview he gave for New Yorker magazine that nodded that the end is nigh. He has faced the final curtain with dignity. Still, the fact remains that You Want it Darker
is a masterpiece of a record in a career full of achievements and that it serves as another fine testament to Cohen's craft and ingenuity as a songwriter.
You Want It Darker; Treaty; On the Level; Leaving the Table; If I Didn't Have Your
Love; Traveling Light; It Seemed the Better Way; Steer Your Way; String Reprise
Leonard Cohen: vocals; Adam Cohen: classical guitar; Patrick Leonard:
keyboards, organ, piano, bass synthesizer, bass, percussion, drum
programming; Michael Chaves: keyboards, bass, drum programming;
Zac Rae: guitar, classical guitar, mandolin, keyboards, mellotron, celeste,
piano, wurlitzer, floor tom, octaphone; Bill Bottrell: electric guitar, pedal steel
guitar; Brian Macleod – drums