Okay, let’s be honest — that headline up there could apply just as well to the two albums that came before this one. After financial catastrophe forced him out of retirement in the late 2000s, Leonard Cohen embarked on an extremely well-received world tour, his first in 15 years. Encouraged, Cohen returned to the studio, producing the spiritual “Old Ideas” in 2012 and the sophisticated “Popular Problems” in 2014. Cohen sang both of these albums with the candor of a man who knew that time was not on his side, but his latest release, “You Want It Darker,” takes him closer to the veil of mortality than ever before.
It’s been nearly fifty years since Cohen released his debut album, and you can hear how the years have taken a toll on his voice. Cohen scarcely raises his voice above a ravaged whisper, but he has never had to sing loudly to reverberate with the listener, an effect enhanced by the unfathomable depths of his baritone. Cohen sings as if you’re sitting across the table from him, and his every word buzzes in your ears.
The first voice you hear on “You Want It Darker” is not Cohen’s, but those of a choir, followed soon after Cohen’s as he addresses God Himself. But from the lyrics it becomes clear that Cohen is here for confession, not exaltation; verses hint at past atrocities (“I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim”) and the killing of Jesus (“Vilified, crucified, in the human frame”). “You want it darker,” Cohen growls on the refrain, but it’s not a question. And then, with all the gravity of a man awaiting judgment: “I’m ready, my Lord.”
The following track, “Treaty,” may be even better, and ranks alongside “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Hallelujah” as one of the most immediately affecting songs Cohen has ever written. “I’m so sorry for the ghost I made you be,” Cohen sings to an ex-lover who can change water into wine. (A woman? God? Both?) Despite the passage of time, lines like “I sit at your table every night / I try, but I just don’t get high with you” and “I haven’t said a word since you’ve been gone / That any liar couldn’t say as well” suggest that the loss of love is one that Cohen will never get over. A few songs later, on the openhearted ballad “If I Didn’t Have Your Love,” Cohen addresses the same lover with gratitude.
Across “You Want It Darker,” you can pick out subtle changes in Cohen’s music and lyrics. Cohen was pegged as a folk artist in his early years, but threads of blues, jazz and pop have gradually crept into his music, which transcends genre. Perhaps more so than any previous album, though, “You Want It Darker” flirts with the sounds of gospel (save for the folky, Mediterranean “Traveling Light”). The production, which was handled by Cohen and his son Adam, is perhaps the sparest since his early works; it strips away the polish of his last two albums and leaves the sound of a man singing in the studio.
Meanwhile, sexuality has long been a theme of Cohen’s songwriting, but “You Want It Darker” addresses it from a different point of view. In his old age, Cohen seems to have either abandoned his lusty ways or is no longer able to maintain them; “I don’t need a lover / The wretched beast is tame,” he sings on “Leaving the Table.” He opens the same song with “I’m leaving the table / I’m out of the game / I don’t know the people / In your picture frame.” It would be, perhaps, his bleakest acknowledgement of the passage of time if not for “Steer Your Way,” in which Cohen reflects on the Creation and the Fall, on Fundamental Goodness and the Wisdom of the Way — and on Jesus’ death and his own.
A few weeks ago, Cohen was the subject of a long profile by the New Yorker, tracing the footsteps of his career from the present day all the way back to when he met his muse, Marianne Ihlen, for whom “So Long, Marianne” was named. Days before Ihlen’s passing this summer, Cohen wrote her a final letter, in which he suggested that he was not far behind — a sentiment that he reiterated to the New Yorker, saying “I am ready to die.” Cohen walked back those comments in a subsequent interview; “I intend to live forever,” he coyly addressed his audience. But the sound of “You Want It Darker” is one of an 82-year-old man who welcomes death, even if he does not actively seek it. If this is indeed the last we hear of Cohen — if the baffled king has composed his last hallelujah — then he’s given us an incredibly moving parting gift, one of the best albums of his career.
Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.