Album of the Week: Leonard Cohen, 'You Want It Darker'

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Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker
Leonard Cohen, 'You Want It Darker' (Columbia Records)

Leonard Cohen was a beloved hero in Canada. At The Entry on the night his death was announced, I was hosting a show featuring two Manitoba bands, several members of which were visibly stunned by the news. We had a moment of silence for Cohen that brought the full room to a complete hush. That weekend, our boss Jim went up to Winnipeg for the return gig, and he watched as Hockey Night in Canada on CBC-TV celebrated Leonard Cohen as the nation mourned. There were flowers piled up outside Cohen's previous residence in Montreal, becoming a shrine similar to the ones we erected for Prince at Paisley Park and at First Ave.

More than any other poet or songwriter born in Canada (except perhaps Neil Young), Leonard had made it in the USA and beyond. Still trying to make it as a poet, he'd moved down to NYC from Montreal in the 1960s, becoming part of the growing counterculture there. Cohen helped make a name for the Chelsea Hotel, inspiring many American musicians and performers around him back then and well into the future.

My older stepbrother had a band called Famous Blue Raincoat when he lived in Buffalo, N.Y., in the late '70s; he had to explain to me that it was the title of a Leonard Cohen song — at 18, I was too young to understand the importance of it. Leonard was the type of artist that your older brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts turned you on to. Others found him through his songs. Cohen's most famous, "Hallelujah," was covered by Jeff Buckley, and "Everybody Knows," covered by Concrete Blond, was used in the cult-classic film of 1990, Pump Up The Volume.

The first Leonard Cohen album that I bought was The Future, in 1992. I loved the atmospheric sound he'd created on that album, as well as some of his prescient lyrics, especially in the song "Democracy." Cohen brought a wisdom to the words, which was unusual in the popular music of the time. And listening again to the words of "Democracy" now, I see how wise it was in its day. Cohen was one of the few who thought then that the tumbling of the Berlin Wall might not prove to be entirely a good thing.

He had made his first "comeback" in 1988 with the successful I'm Your Man album, and The Future continued his ascent, winning a Juno Award for best Male Vocalist. Cohen admitted in his Juno acceptance speech: "Only in Canada could someone with a voice like mine win this award!" He never had the greatest singing voice, but it had depth, quality and character.

Even after re-gaining his status and perhaps because of his fear of what was to come, Cohen retreated to a Buddhist monastery and was ordained a monk in 1996. As the story of his life has unfolded over the past two weeks, it's clear that he walked a unique spiritual path. Cohen still kept the Sabbath throughout his life, and he was buried next to his parents in the tradition of his Jewish heritage. He explained in an interview with the BBC in 2007, "The investigations I have done into other spiritual systems have certainly illuminated and enriched my understanding of my own tradition."

What I admired about Cohen most was that after retreating for so long, he came back again to the real world and succeeded in making another comeback. Cohen had the tenacity to recoup a lot of money that had been misappropriated by a former manager by undertaking a massive two-year world tour — in his late 70s — for which he got rave reviews.

On Nov. 7, 2016, Cohen apparently got up in the middle of the night and fell over, but made it back to bed, dying later in his sleep. The cancer he'd been battling was not the main reason for his death, but it had caused him to approach the making of this album, You Want It Darker, as if it would be his last.

Once again, Cohen proved prescient.

In recent interviews, Cohen had been relieved that he had the strength to finish the album, knew that he wouldn't be able to tour again, and also admitted to being "ready to die." That quote still shocks a lot of people, but it also speaks to the wisdom of being content with your contribution, at peace. It's huge because it puts a different perspective on this work. The lyrics are from an artist looking back on his life, loves and work and contemplating them with a knowing finality.

Recording the vocals with the help of his musician son, Adam, at the dining table of his house in Los Angeles, You Want It Darker was greeted with more excellent reviews, getting a 92/100 on the critic site Metacritic. It was also as popular as he's ever been, going straight to Number One in Canada, Number Four in the U.K. and even Number 10 here in the States.

As its title suggests, this last album is a dark work; some of the songs seem to be Cohen's continued efforts to understand the ways of women and love, tinged with regret: "I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine" is a great idea from track 2, "Treaty," which becomes the theme as it is reprised at the end with the almost-instrumental track 9, "String Reprise/Treaty." The album also has a somber atmosphere, with spare lilting arrangements, just adequately supporting Cohen's voice, which sounds deeper than ever.

At the heart of the album — on track 6, "Traveling Light," and track 7, "It Seemed The Better Way" — thankfully, Cohen appears confident of his past choices and at peace with how things have worked out. He even seems to make light of the heaviness of his end-of-life message by comparing it to a card game on "Leaving The Table." He played a good hand with the voice he was dealt, and this album is a fitting royal flush.

Resources


Leonard Cohen - official site

Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker (Amazon CD)

Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker (Amazon Vinyl)

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