Albums to hear series no. 4
Leonard Cohen has been in the headlines a lot lately. Over the summer, a letter he wrote to the late Marianne Ihlen went viral for its aching emotion—the words of a true-to-life love story in its death throes. In the letter, Cohen assured Ihlen he would “follow her soon.”
On Oct. 17, The New Yorker’s David Remnick penned a feature on Cohen’s life—his music and lyrics, poetry, performance anxiety, religion and humor. The feature was gripping, touching and thorough, a magnificent take on a musician and poet of the highest caliber in his twilight years. After a career spanning five decades, countless Juno awards and Grammys, Cohen has inarguably earned the right to call it a day on his own terms.
His fans were gravely alarmed when in the Remnick feature Cohen went as far as to say he was “ready to die.” In the year that we lost David Bowie and Prince, the notion that Leonard Cohen may soon be leaving us was not welcome news, to say the least.
However recently Cohen decided to reassure fans—during an appearance at a consulate for a listen-along of his new record, Cohen spoke up.
“I said I was ready to die recently,” Cohen told host Chris Douridas, “and I think I was exaggerating. I’ve always been into self-dramatization. I intend to live forever.”
It’s hard to know in which statement he’s being more wry.
“You Want It Darker,” Cohen’s 14th studio album, comes off like an epigraph—a grand final statement. His observations are those of a master aesthete, a man who has been writing insightfully all his life. The album was produced by his first son, Adam Cohen, a modestly well-regarded songsmith in his own right.
The title track is the lead off, with the repeating chorus a religious statement. The Hebrew word Hineni, meaning ‘here I am’ is repeated. Hineni was used in the Torah and when Cohen murmurs “I’m ready my lord.” He sounds like a deeply pious man doubling down at the end of his life.
Cohen’s baritone has been the backbone of his last few records, notably his 2014 album “Popular Problems”. Here it is no different, his growls and do well complimenting the furthered lyrical content: in younger years, Cohen’s lyrics were confidently romantic (his 1977 album “Death of a Ladies Man” produced by Phil Spector is a example of this.) now they seem more faith focused and serious.
“Traveling Light” and “If I Didn’t Have Your Love” are among the bleakest moments of the record, though always with a charm and poise to suggest just a touch of playfulness. The contrast is relieving from the almost entirely somber tone of the record.
After the instrumental “String Reprise,” the record concludes with the song “Treaty” a reprisal of the album’s second song, perhaps it’s strongest. “Treaty” speaks to both a religious love and a humanist one. It expresses a remorse for impossible love—Cohen is perhaps alluding to his own faith, a deeply intertwined relationship with both Judaism and Buddhism.
“You Want It Darker” is not only the best Leonard Cohen album in years, it’s one of the best he’s ever made. Not an album to be missed.