Leonard Cohen – “You Want It Darker” (2016)

November 6, 2016 at 10:13 am (Leonard Cohen, Motown, Reviews & Articles)

This review of the new LC album comes from The Guardian, Oct. 20, 2016 and written by Alex Petridis…

Still Changing, Still Full of Life

Despite all the recent talk about Leonard Cohen’s mortality, his wonderful new album suggests an artist determined to keep moving forward. 

Last week, Leonard Cohen felt obliged to announce that reports of his death – or at least his imminent death – had been exaggerated. “I said I was ready to die recently,” he told the audience at a listening party in Los Angeles for his 14th studio album. “And I think I was exaggerating. I’ve always been into self-dramatisation. I intend to live forever.”

The original quote about being ready to die arrived in a remarkable New Yorker profile, and came as a shock to anyone whose image of Cohen was frozen in the moment he left the stage of Auckland’s Vector Arena in December 2013, at what may yet prove to be his final live performance: an exceptionally handsome and dapper gentleman who appeared to be wearing both his 79 years and the rigours of a tour that had lasted since 2008 extraordinarily well, who still carried something of the air of the “boudoir poet,” as his former lover Joni Mitchell once described him. It was an image that 2014’s Popular Problems did little to counter-act – it was as acclaimed an album as he has ever released, further buoyed by interviews in which Cohen talked of honing its songs over hundreds of gigs – but here he was, two years on, apparently so frail that he was “confined to barracks” and using phrases such as “when I was healthy.” No wonder that, earlier this year, he had told his dying former partner and muse Marianne Ihlen: “I think I will follow you very soon.”

But equally, you can see why Cohen is keen to deflect the interpretation that You Want It Darker is intended as some kind of musical last will and testament. It arrives packed with songs you could interpret as reflective farewells – from “Leaving the Table” to “Steer Your Way” – and with references to mortality and faith. The first sound you hear is a choir from the Montreal synagogue in which Cohen’s family worshipped, and the last is Cohen apparently addressing Jesus with a certain irrevocability: “It’s over now, the water and the wine… I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.”

But, as his biographer Sylvie Simmons recently pointed out, it was ever thus: reflective farewells are very much his stock in trade, and you would be hard pushed to find another songwriter whose work displays such “an awareness of the imminent defeat,” as Simmons put it. He was musing on posterity in the 1980s in “Tower of Song,” albeit concluding it was nothing to worry about. His most famous song, “Hallelujah,” is stuffed with precisely the kind of biblical imagery and conflicted, ambiguous attitude to spirituality and religion that suffuses You Want It Darker, and Cohen wrote that in his late 40s. Moreover, “Hallelujah” took him five years to write, which makes it one of his more speedily composed numbers: “Treaty,” the song those lines about the water and the wine come from, has apparently been ongoing for the best part of 20 years, which certainly casts a slightly different light on its sense of finality.

Still, you could never describe You Want It Darker as merely more of the same. As striking as the sense that its themes are of a piece with the rest of Cohen’s oeuvre is the sense of an artist willing to move forward. Even leaving aside the fairly mind-boggling fact that someone has commissioned a dance remix of the title track, a menacing critique of religion – if it’s hard to imagine Cohen is a devoted fan of Paul Kalkbrenner, the Berlin-based techno producer responsible, it’s harder still to imagine that anything gets released without the old boy’s agreement – there are moments when You Want It Darker gently pushes Cohen’s sound to places it hasn’t really gone before.

He was once content to let his songs into the world backed by the kind of synthesisers and drum machines that Stock, Aitken and Waterman would have eschewed as a bit too Woolworths for their own good, as if the words were the only thing that really mattered to him. But You Want It Darker frequently frames his songs in orchestral arrangements of varying degrees of sumptuousness: from the discreet haze of strings that hovers behind the tremolo-heavy guitars and pedal steel of “Leaving the Table” to the intricate repetitions of “Steer Your Way” – like a countrified take on minimalist classical music – to the high drama of the concluding reprise of “Treaty.” The latter, in particular, sounds markedly different from anything Cohen has done before; moreover, the contrast between the orchestral grandeur and his parched vocal really works.

Meanwhile, the lyrics are as fascinating and conflicted as ever. The title track flips from anger to resigned acceptance and back again, its fluctuations decorated with beautiful lines: “I struggled with some demons, they were middle-class and tame.” God fades in and out of view throughout the album, sometimes there, sometimes a figment of the imagination. Elsewhere, Cohen’s view of a presumably octogenarian decline in sexual desire seems largely to be one of relief, not unlike the late George Melly’s line about it feeling “like being unchained from a lunatic” – In “Leaving the Table,” he declares “the wretched beast has been tamed” – but it’s tempered by wrenching evocations of lost love: “They ought to give my heart a medal for letting go of you” or “If the road leads back to you, must I forget the things I knew?”

Throughout, he sounds wise and honest, and – despite the occasional lyrical protestations of weariness – full of life. Last week in LA, Cohen talked about making two more albums, about following the musical path sketched out on the album’s finale, “String Reprise/Treaty.” It’s hard not to hope it works out that way – the man behind You Want It Darker does not seem like someone running short on inspiration – but if circumstances dictate otherwise, there are worse ways to bow out than this.

Alex Petridis 


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: