An icon’s final goodbye on ‘You Want it Darker’
Adam Ramos | Thursday, November 17, 2016
In art, the only subject explored as much as love is death. But from the cliche to the bitingly surreal and everything else in between, the portrayal of death varies greatly with each artist’s perception of it.
For Leonard Cohen, a man who spent an entire career exploring life’s greatest mysteries, death is nothing new. Unfortunately, with news of Cohen’s passing this past week, we now know that the concept of death was something entirely more tangible on his latest and final album. On “You Want it Darker,” the Canadian icon touchingly resigns to the great abyss in his final ode to humanity.
The album opens with its title track, giving a first glimpse into Cohen’s morbid world with a funky ’80s bassline surrounded by mystical chanting. Just as the arrangement starts to cohere, Cohen’s gnarled vocals enter with the line, “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.” Though callous, his warbled drawl manages to charm and invite.
From there, religion and poetics blend, producing compelling lines like, “There’s a lullaby for suffering / And a paradox to blame / But it’s written in the scriptures / And it’s not some idle claim.” Such lines are often drawn into sharp relief by a following claim; in this case, Cohen follows the seemingly uplifting line with the morbid surrender of “I’m ready, my lord.” The bass line chugs along ceaselessly as the chanting consumes the entire song.
The shadowy ambiance introduced in the opening track grounds the album from the start, but it expands thematically and musically as the work progresses. “It Seemed the Better Way” features a similar hymn procession as the opener but the effect is more subdued. Achy violin cuts in and out of the track, as if the listener was walking past street performers during a solemn city march. Echoes of this setting appear on many of the album’s nine tracks — indeed, most songs utilize different atmospheric backing vocals, bolstering the gravity of the aging crooner’s arresting presence.
But as much as the album succeeds in capturing the bleakness of an approaching death, the tenderness present throughout every stage of Cohen’s career still manages to peek through. It’s a welcome balance; while the gloom is fitting, Cohen’s music can tend towards vapid without the reprieve of sonic and lyrical warmth.
In one such instance, bright organ and simple guitar chords complement a minimal brush-drum snare beat on the charming “If I Didn’t Have Your Love.” In the album’s most emotive song, “Treaty,” Cohen sings, “I wish there was a treaty / Between your love and mine.” At a point in his life when most of his friends were gone and death loomed around the corner, the former monk was still able to remain at peace and express love in his final days.
While death may be at the center of “You Want it Darker,” it seems that Cohen wasn’t concerned with lingering over any sort of banal death adage. The album is void of any deathbed confessionals, lofty advice from the all-knowing sage or shaking fears about the beyond. Instead, we get a content assemblage of honest reflections and desires from old man at the eve of his life. That’s exactly why the album is powerful: it treats death as a reality, not just an idea impossible to conceptualize.
At just under 35 minutes long, “You Want it Darker,” like many of Cohen’s other albums, doesn’t overstay its welcome. While I could end on a banal comparison to the fleeting nature of life itself or something as trivial, I will defer. Rest in peace, Leonard Cohen.
“You Want it Darker”
Favorite Tracks: “You Want it Darker,” “Treaty,” “If I Didn’t Have Your Love”
If You Like: Tom Waits, The Tallest Man on Earth, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds