As with his fellow universally revered wordsmith and recent Nobel Prize honoree Bob Dylan, the power of Leonard Cohen’s music has always derived primarily from the sagacity of his songwriting. In his twenties and early thirties, Cohen sharpened his pen as an acclaimed, if not adequately compensated, poet and novelist. By the time he decided to give music a whirl in the mid ‘60s, his literary voice and identity were well defined, though crafting songs offered him a fresh platform through which to evolve his writing even further.
As manifest across his prolific five decades-long oeuvre and within his more widely celebrated compositions like “Suzanne,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Everybody Knows,” and the oft-covered “Hallelujah,” Cohen’s lyrics have always been driven by a dynamic duality and his profound appreciation for humanity’s many contradictions. A self-proclaimed religious man raised in a devout Jewish household in a Montreal suburb, Cohen has always possessed a keen interest in and empathy for the more irreverent, more sinful, and darker dimensions of life. Indeed, while he has sustained his faith, he is also no stranger to its limits. In recalling his time overseas as a young man during a recent New Yorker interview, the now 82-year-old Cohen confided, “I took trip after trip, sitting on my terrace in Greece, waiting to see God. Generally, I ended up with a bad hangover.”
The follow up to 2014’s critically applauded Popular Problems, Cohen’s fourteenth studio album You Want It Darker finds the octogenarian in signature enthralling form, with his powers of provocation—not to mention his wry humor—fully intact. While the lyrical weight of the song suite coupled with Cohen’s gravely baritone spoken-word still commands the lion’s share of the listener’s attention, the stark yet sublime arrangements and production orchestrated by his son Adam Cohen also warrant plenty of praise.
Bolstered by choral contributions supplied by Montreal’s Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue, the haunting, hymn-like title track opens the nine-track affair in captivating fashion. Cohen conjures both Christian and Jewish imagery as he grapples with reconciling the sanctity of the divine with the persistent atrocities that plague God’s creations.
The conflicting nature of religious conviction is a theme that resurfaces throughout the album, most notably on the gorgeous, violin-blessed “It Seemed the Better Way,” which finds Cohen reevaluating his commitment to organized religion in the face of his approaching mortality. Indeed, in lyrics such as “I better hold my tongue / I better take my place / Lift this glass of blood / Try to say the grace,” it seems that Cohen is begrudgingly forcing himself to preserve the remnant fragments of his fading faith.
With lyrics originally published in the poetry section of The New Yorker earlier this year, “Steer Your Way” suggests that Cohen has embraced self-agency, liberated from the confines of institutionalized religion, as the “better way” to navigate life in his later years and prepare for whatever comes next.
On a handful of tracks, Cohen examines both the fleeting and redeeming nature of love. He laments love lost on the album’s piano-driven second song “Treaty,” but then accepts the verdict and his resulting solitude two songs later on the introspective “Leaving the Table,” confessing, “I don’t need a love, so blow out the flame.” But just when you assume that Cohen has resigned himself to the doom-and-gloom that follows the dissolution of love, he delivers “If I Didn’t Have Your Love,” a sweet ballad that explores the life-affirming power of love and serves as one of the album’s finest moments.
Responding to his off-the-cuff remark about being “ready to die” in the aforementioned New Yorker interview, which was misinterpreted by some of his more passionate devotees as the intentional foretelling of his death, Cohen recently clarified to Billboard, “I think I was exaggerating. I’ve always been into self-dramatization. I intend to live forever.”
Regardless of how long he lives, forever or otherwise, it’s safe to say that his music and words will endure for eternity, and You Want It Darker will be remembered as one of his greatest achievements.
Notable Tracks: “If I Didn’t Have Your Love” | “It Seemed the Better Way” | “Steer Your Way” | “You Want It Darker”