Our society, despite its general refusal to talk candidly about death, romanticizes the dying artist.
To see this trend in action, look no further than earlier this year, when David Bowie released his final album “Blackstar”—and promptly died two days later. The album was good, yes, but much of its mystique lay in the circumstances surrounding it. The dying, we believe, must have something to say.
Not to mention that dying makes a good story. In a New Yorker profile last week, Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen declared, “I am ready to die.” The 82-year-old acknowledged that his health has slowed along with his ability to perform, and that this latest musical effort could be his last. Needless to say, the quote grabbed headlines. Whispers and rumors of his impending mortality abounded, accompanying the release of his new album “You Want It Darker.”
By its title, “You Want It Darker” reads like a jab at those who demand profundity from mortality. Here is an artist who practically built his career on darkness. If we expect even more of that from a man in the twilight of his life, he says, have at it. (Despite his gloomy reputation, Cohen has never been above a wry sense of humor).
As far as final statements go, though, “You Want It Darker” succeeds in distilling what has made Cohen’s work special. Cohen is known as a spiritual person, dealing with themes of religion while never adhering to a single calling, and his music reflects it now as much as ever. Ghostly choirs and church organs back up many of the tracks. It’s hard to listen to the bouncing piano chords of “Treaty” and “On the Level” without hearing the echoes of some old Baptist hymn. And on “Traveling Light,” one of the few up-tempo tracks—and that’s a generous description—an arrangement of intertwining violin, guitar and vocal chants reflects the musical traditions of Cohen’s Jewish heritage.
But Cohen’s most powerful instruments have always been his words. Here, they emerge from a voice that rarely rises above a gravelly whisper, yet the production puts them front-and-center, cutting through the grey backdrop with lines like “They ought to give my heart a medal for letting go of you / When I turned my back on the devil, turned my back on the angel, too.”
Throughout the album, Cohen repeatedly addresses this “you,” and the subject of his metaphors morphs from track to track: here a former lover, there a higher power. All the while, the specter of death looms large, and Cohen’s attitude toward it shifts.
On the title track, for example, he proclaims, “Hineni, Hineni / I’m ready, my Lord,” using the Hebrew for “Here I am, Here I am.” At moments like this, he seems to embrace his fate with open arms.
Elsewhere, though, he struggles with questions unanswered, relationships unfixed, younger days longed for. On “Treaty,” he sings, “I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.” This line, which appears again on the final track, could scan as an amicable, if pained, end to any relationship, but the relationship at stake here does not appear to be an earthly one. The biblical imagery that dots Cohen’s lyrics suggests otherwise. Rather, he is addressing a relationship with God, whose existence he may acknowledge but cannot fully accept: “I try, but I just don’t get high with you.”
Although its aura lives up to the title’s billing, Cohen’s music is often secondary to his lyrics. For this reason, it can be easy to get lost in the bog of downtempo ballads if you aren’t paying complete attention to what Cohen has to say. But when Cohen makes departures from that prevailing mode, the results are that much more welcome: take the exhilarating “Steer Your Way,” whose staccato strings lead into the gorgeous intro of finale “String Reprise/Treaty.”
For a man who sees death around the corner, Leonard Cohen sounds remarkably calm and composed. We believe proximity to death fuels the kind of creative genius and rumination on mortality that produce records like “Blackstar,” but the truth is that Cohen has always dealt with these subjects. He has always pondered mortality and he has always questioned God. And he has always been this poetic in doing so.
On “You Want It Darker,” Leonard Cohen does what he has always done, even if his message is sharpened by the realization that his days are numbered. We should expect no less—and no more—from an artist whose legacy will live on long after he has gone.