“If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often,” Leonard Cohen mused earlier this month in a press conference promoting his fourteenth record, ‘You Want It Darker.’ At age eighty two, Cohen’s new nine song collection has been released to what Metacritic defines as “universal acclaim.” Announced unexpectedly earlier this year, the effort has quickly become one of the most lauded and celebrated releases of 2016.
That quote from Cohen is indicative of a rather compelling notion: his attention to detail and perfection has been what has kept him so highly and consistently regarded as one of the finest songwriters in music. In contrast to his legendary peers, people like Bob Dylan, for example, Cohen’s output has been rather selective. He’s nearly ten years older than the new Nobel Laureate, but his catalog is a fifth of the size over nearly as many years. (The same parallel could also be drawn with Paul McCartney, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, etc.)
Looking back at Leonard Cohen’s career, there isn’t an album that hasn’t been celebrated at some point – something that can’t be said for the majority of artists with the prolific nature and longevity that Cohen has had. Even his more obscure efforts that were panned by critics upon release, the Phil Spector produced ‘Death of a Ladies’ Man,’ for instance, have become classics in their own right. (‘Death of a Ladies’ Man’ was heavily popular amongst younger, more rebellious circles of music fans in the late 70s.)
Now, in 2016, Cohen is as painstakingly articulate as he was on his 1967 debut album. There isn’t one note gone awry
on ‘You Want It Darker’ – not one verse or phrasing that isn’t as sharp as a razor’s edge. The album’s dark, melancholy atmosphere is spine-tingling and haunting, yet simultaneously and surprisingly uplifting and reassuring.
The titular track of ‘You Want It Darker’ calls upon poetic imagery that aligns beautifully with Cohen’s ever-so-popular ‘Hallelujah.’ It’s a track rooted in biblical themes that Cohen presents in an aggressively raw, even suave way. “Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name,” Cohen croons, “vilified, crucified, in the human frame. A million candles burning for the help that never came. You want it darker.”
Several weeks ago, Cohen made press when he discussed that he was “ready to die.” He’s since refuted that, but one can’t help but wonder if that sentiment fueled the title track of this album. “If you are the dealer, let me out of the game,” he sings, “if you are the healer, I’m broken and lame.” At the top of each chorus, Cohen growls, “hineni, hineni,” a Jewish phrase directed toward God that means “here I am.”
A poignant internal dialog then continues throughout the album. On the magnificent ‘Treaty,’ Cohen sings, “I don’t care who takes the bloody hill. I’m angry and I’m tired all the time… I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.” On the simplistic, but immensely elegant ‘Leaving the Table,’ Cohen writes, “I don’t know the people in your picture frame… it’s a crying shame if I ever loved you.”
Cohen’s poetry, surprisingly, doesn’t sound as somber on the album as it reads on the page. At times, he sounds less heartbroken and more analytical of his human condition, as if he’s slowly speaking the album to you over a cup of coffee in a dimly lit bar in the early hours of the morning. That’s why when the tone switches at the halfway point, it doesn’t feel abrupt, but in actuality, rather natural.
On ‘If I Didn’t Have Your Love,’ Cohen pens one of the most lovely ballads of his career. Despite his seemingly destitute outlook on love, this song reaffirms Cohen’s inner romantic. His bright days would shift to endless nights without his muse, and ‘Traveling Light’ reflects on a love gone by in a particularly fond way. There has been some speculation of the track being about his dear Marianne, which would certainly make sense.
In the latter moments of the record, Cohen explores some increasingly fascinating territory. ‘It Seemed Like The Better Way’ very much sounds like a reflection of Cohen’s time that he spent living in a monastery throughout the 90s – time that he may have some internal strife in regard to the validity of. ‘Steer Your Way’ then seems to walk the line between inspirational themes and dark, cynical religious commentary.
The finale of the album, ‘String Reprise / Treaty,’ is a revisiting of the album’s most powerful track. In doing so, Cohen seems to offer a resolution in a cryptic, but reassuring way. “It’s over now, the water and the wine,” he speaks softly, “we were broken then but now we’re borderline… I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.” The surreal verse offers an ending to Cohen’s introspective excursion that’ll remain forever memorable.
All of this, one could argue, would be less astoundingly excellent without Adam Cohen, Cohen’s son who produced the record. ‘You Want It Darker’ is as much of a musical masterpiece as it is a lyrical one. Adam Cohen accented his father’s deep, aged growl with a perfect culmination of very soft instrumentations. At times, the music fades so perfectly into the backdrop that the listener loses track of it altogether. Cohen is front and center, uninhibited by any extensive production or musical banter.
That isn’t to say ‘You Want It Darker’ is simple, however, because it isn’t. A choir compliments Cohen on several of the tracks, and the compositions are compellingly unique and varied. The strings in the final and in tracks like ‘Steer Your Way’ are perfectly orchestrated as well. The entire album has a sound unlike anything Cohen has released in the past – it’s a jaw-droppingly stunning sonic portrait.
This entire collection is a masterfully realized endeavor that highlights Leonard Cohen at his finest – even after all of these years. It is unbelievably impressive that his songwriting prowess is finely tuned as it ever has been. This isn’t just a “good recent Leonard Cohen record.” It’s one of his best records ever. He has transcended being one of the most important songwriters of the twentieth century to becoming one of the most important songwriters of any era.
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Written By Brett David Stewart