In late October, poet, novelist, singer, and songwriter Leonard Cohen released his fourteenth studio album, You Want It Darker. He died a few weeks later on Nov. 7 at age 82 (his death was announced on Nov. 10, after he was reportedly buried). Taken together, the nine songs of the album are a funeral march, a playlist for the broken-hearted and soon-to-be departed, but that’s no surprise–Cohen’s work has always been elegiac and existential. What is a surprise is the potency of these songs. “You Want it Darker,” “Treaty,” and “It Seemed the Better Way” are mesmerizing in their simplicity. The backing vocals, the organ, and the violin bring the listener into the church, but they all fade when Cohen’s spell-binding baritone takes the stage. “Hineni, Hineni/I’m ready, My Lord,” he sings in the title track. Simply put, You Want It Darker is Cohen’s masterful goodbye, expressed in a way that only Cohen, a towering figure in music, could pull off.
Perhaps best known for his song “Hallelujah,” which experienced a resurgence in the 1990s after Jeff Buckley’s stunning cover and again several years ago after it popped up on the talent shows The X-Factor (UK) and American Idol, Cohen’s music had penetrated pop culture. Sure, some may remember “Everybody Knows” in the pirate radio movie Pump up the Volume (1990), which starred Christian Slater, or “Waiting on the Miracle” in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), but it’s the endlessly-covered “Hallelujah” that has found the biggest audience. In fact, it has become such a staple that even Kate McKinnon, as Hillary Clinton, covered the song on Saturday Night Live. Here’s the thing though–it rarely fails to satisfy or pluck the heartstrings. Cohen wrote dozens upon dozens of verses, and the different interpretations, arrangements, and verse selections are a testament to the power of his songwriting, his artistry, and his legacy.
Since his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), Cohen’s music has always been mournful and word-heavy, but it packs a sorrowful punch. Songs like “Suzanne,” and “So Long, Marianne” established Cohen’s style and sensibility, a sensibility and worldview he continued with “Bird on a Wire,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” and so many others that have since become classics. You Want It Darker is a reflection of his long career, the culmination of the thirteen albums that came before it. The intermingling of spirituality, sex, longing, heartbreak, all the stuff we have come to expect from Cohen, is laid bare alongside a sense of acceptance at what’s lost and what’s ahead. “I’m traveling light/It’s au revoir/My once so bright/My fallen star,” he sings in “Traveling Light,” the sixth track. “But if the road/Leads back to you/Must I forget/The things I knew.” The lyrics feel both cool and wise. He is resigned to his fate, but he still has the strength to impart some counsel to those of us that remain tethered to this world.
In both the title track and “Leaving the Table,” Cohen repeats the image of a gambler at a card table. “I’m leaving the table/I’m out of the game,” he sings. He is packing up his things. He is making arrangements. Or as he noted to The New Yorker, he is putting his “house in order.” Cohen has been referred to as a “genius” and a “prophet.” Of course, monikers like “prophet” are often thrown around indiscriminately, and as such they can lose their meaning, but in Cohen’s case, they ring true. As you listen to these songs, it feels as if he has some special insight into the meaning of it all. He remained a philosopher until the very end. In August, Cohen wrote a letter to his one-time muse and dear friend Marianne Ihlen, who was nearing the end of her battle with leukemia. “Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” In a New Yorker profile on Oct. 17, Cohen proclaimed, “I am ready to die.” If only we could all possess that ability to look back and look ahead at the same time. Somehow, in this age of fast-paced, multi-device, multitasking, Cohen’s music asks us again to slow down and pay attention.
You Want It Darker is remarkable not only for its music and lyrics, but because of the access it provides to the artist’s state of mind during this last mile of his life. Now, with his death a mere three weeks after the album’s release, it’s impossible to separate the two. In a moment when authenticity is always at question, Cohen’s final album is open and honest in a way that we’re not fully accustomed to hearing. It is a poet’s song. Buy this album. Cherish it. Revisit it. There is more truth embedded here than we have access to in our daily observances.