Album Review : Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker (2016)
Leonard Cohen quietly passed away on November 7 of last year, twenty-four hours before Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Now, you could argue the man checked out at the classiest possible time, but he wasn't really mourned because of that. At least, not right away and not the way he should've been. Leonard Cohen's work is really important to Josie and I, and the one-year anniversary of his death has been a struggle, to say the least. That's why I decided to review his final album You Want It Darker, released not even three weeks before his passing.
It seemed like the least I could do.
So, You Want It Darker is... uh, pretty bleak. Finality and death are being openly discussed, which shouldn't be surprising or foreshadowing in any way. Leonard Cohen was 82 years old when he recorded this, so the loneliness, helplessness and frustrations of being that age must've been overbearing to him. Nevertheless, there's an earnest and heartbreaking abandon to bleakness that's both oddly refreshing and very unlike Leonard Cohen. You Want It Darker is the album of a man who has given up and decided to face the grim prospect of his own demise.
It doesn't sound THAT original when said like this, but Cohen doesn't play. The title track and opener You Want It Darker has some of the most pulverizingly bleak one-liners you've ever heard. Lyrics such as: A million candles burning for the help that never came or If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game/If you are the healer, it means I'm broken and lame both have inherent beauty and reflect on us, the audience and the era we live in. That song is a manifesto against a world that passed him by and has a place on his inevitable next greatest hits. It's that powerful. Listen for yourselves.
Cohen explores the card game metaphor again in Leaving the Table, where it becomes clearer what it refers to: You don't need a lawyer/I'm not making a claim/You don't need to surrender/I'm not taking aim. He doesn't want to fight anymore. You Want It Darker is filled with that heartbreaking imagery of someone giving up and letting himself go. In Steer Your Way, he drives through religion monuments and secular creations (notably a mall), going elsewhere. It's not really mentioned where he goes, which is in accordance with his buddhist beliefs, but there's a lingering feeling to the song that he would like to know himself.
Musically speaking, You Want It Darker shows the restraint and the nuance some of the lyrics don't have anymore. I particularly appreciated the liturgical influences, namely the use of organ and Gregorian chants that added a sacramental layer to Leonard Cohen's brooding and iconoclast poetry. My favorite arrangements, though are on the song On the Level, which has a bluesy piano and soulful backup singing. The chorus, where Cohen reminisces of a tough separation with a toxic person, is absolutely infectious. It's something for heartbroken men to sing drunk in piano bars, something I'm not sure exists anymore.
Leonard Cohen's never been the most musical of recording artists. He sang countless songs accompanied by a simple guitar melody because it was the lyrics that mattered to him. That's what makes You Want It Darker so brilliant. Aside from the title song, the material doesn't have the emotional power of hits such as Hallelujah, A Thousand Kisses Deep or Dance Me to the End of Love, but it's one of his most complete and cohesive albums. There is something of interest on every song. You Want It Darker is a moving and dignified sendoff by one of the most important musicians in my life. It shouldn't have gone any other way.
Thank you, Mr. Cohen. Thank you for everything.