Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
“It’s not dark yet,” Bob Dylan once gurgled, against stark, shadowy musical accompaniment, “but it’s gettin’ there.”
That song, a stirring acknowledgement of mortality and the encroachment of the autumn and winter of one’s life, which I’d consider his last unquestionably flawless song although I know there are many who would disagree, was recorded nearly 20 years ago.
Today, it’s gotten there. It’s officially dark. Dylan’s still standing, of course, and still making records, though I hope to God he’s over his ill-advised Sinatra phase, or whatever it is. But we’re at that point I knew would come. It’s as inevitable as the sun setting in the western sky. We’re at the point where all of the musical giants that have meant anything to anyone for the past 60 years – the originators, the groundbreakers, the icons, the architects of the once swiftly evolving but by now long established art form(s) known (in a general sense) as rock ‘n’ roll music – all of those that haven’t already waved goodbye due to accident or disease or suicide or misadventure, are going to be succumbing left and right to the one sure thing none of us that makes it that far can escape: old age. More than most years in recent memory, 2016 has hammered that point home unrelentingly.
And so it is that Leonard Cohen has died at age 82, truly a tremendous loss. But not before recording, in declining health, with the empathetic assistance of his son Adam and a supremely talented assortment of musicians, what I consider the most moving, fully realized album of his life. And yes, I listened to it upon its release shortly before his death, and I said the same thing then. There are witnesses. It’s not just a sentimental reaction. That said, as with certain other significant artists’ last albums, retrospectively it’s impossible to overlook the foreshadowing.
You Want It Darker begins with the song that gives the album its title, its approach marked by a rising choir, as if we’re assembled at some sort of sacred church service. As bass guitar notes crouch low and a drum taps simply, Cohen begins his unsparing narration, his magnificent voice deeper than I can ever remember hearing it. He speaks in what is almost a near-whisper, yet the commanding power of it reverberates throughout your soul. “Magnified, sanctified be Thy Holy Name. Vilified, crucified in the human frame.” As those words flow forth we are approximately a third of the way into what is already surely one of his most poetic, beautiful, evocative songs ever, and yes, we are in church. “A million candles burning, for the help that never came. You want it darker…” And then he pauses. He doesn’t complete the line (“we kill the flame”). There are a few seconds of space, then he chants “hineni, hineni” (Hebrew, meaning “here I am”) before declaring, “I’m ready, my Lord.”
Oh my God.
“I am ready to die,” Cohen told The New Yorker just days before the release of what would, indeed, be his final album. While he later made light of the comment, indicating it was a dramatic exaggeration, much of You Want It Darker indicates otherwise. I know, I know – it’s always easy to find clues after the fact, a la Blackstar, whether they were intentional or not. So when he announces three songs later, “I’m leaving the table,” before repeating a line (for emphasis?) from “You Want It Darker” – “I’m out of the game” – well, yeah, it’s hard to not take it literally. Later in “Leaving the Table,” he admits that, “I don’t need a lover, that wretched beast is tame.” Meaning the libido of one of music’s all-time great ladies men? “I don’t need a lover, so blow out the flame,” he concludes, resigned to the reality that age takes its toll, and those amorous exploits are behind him.
Musically, You Want It Darker is Cohen’s most beautiful and emotive recording. It’s overwhelmingly orchestral, solemn when needed, yearning at times, marked by violins and cello, piano and choral arrangements. But it’s all effectively restrained, the instruments and other voices mostly hovering in heavenly, celestial reverence. Any remnant of the jarring, trendy production techniques that mar otherwise strong albums such as I’m Your Man are long gone. When matters turn comparatively upbeat, musically speaking, such as on “On the Level,” where background vocalist Dana Glover comes to the forefront, the mood takes on a palpable gospel flavor. Throughout, Cohen’s words, melodies and voice form the centerpiece.
As 2016 hobbles to its final resting place, and the dead are counted, and prayers are spoken, and ashes scattered, I find myself revisiting and then revisiting yet again the songs on this otherworldly album. It is truly, exquisitely lovely, and honest, at times humorous and, being Leonard Cohen, even in his early eighties, it’s naturally romantic. As devastating as it may at times be, it comforts me in certain ways. I look at the cover of You Want It Darker, a photograph of Cohen superimposed within the far side of a window-like opening, looking outward (or is it inward) into what seems to be implied is an abyss of darkness, while it’s bright white on his side of the aperture. Was this image concocted randomly? Considering the care that Cohen put into this recording, with his own mortality entrenched at the forefront of his thoughts, I find that impossible to accept. Two worlds, or planes of existence (perhaps non-existence) are being contrasted. So is the image that of Cohen, from the standpoint of the living, considering the uncertainty of what lies ahead in death? Or is it the opposite? Is it meant to signify Cohen already on the other side, regarding the darkness of humanity’s overwhelming propensity for cruelty, immorality and devastation?
“It’s written in the scriptures,” he reminds us in the album’s title track, “and it’s not some idle claim. You want it darker, we kill the flame.” Cohen was a deeply religious man, a devout Jew who dabbled in Buddhism and other spiritual paths, who incorporated Biblical references and imagery into many of his songs, certainly this one in particular. As with the best poetry, interpretations vary from individual to individual, but I can’t see how one could help but construe the flame, in this case, to be anything but a scarcely veiled metaphor for Jesus Christ.
No, we don’t want it darker. Yet darker it will surely grow, before the coming of the dawn.
You Want It Darker