CANADA: You Want It Darker - Leonard Cohen
Updated: Jan 20
There is not a blurb that could do justice to this album. Listen to it ASAP.
On Around The World In 200 Albums we typically review albums that are melody-driven pieces. Often, this is because many of the albums we write about are not in our mother tongue, but also it is because I am a man who, if you cut my musical veins, I bleed soul, funk, and disco, and am therefore more inclined to follow a beat than to follow a story. That was the case until I listened to You Want It Darker under the stars a few months ago, an epiphanic experience that changed the way I think of and consume music. Just a few days previously I had heard Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' The Boatman’s Call (a future Album of The Week) which had set the wheels in motion for me to realise that often the best music is propelled into greatness by the power of its lyrics.
“This is particularly soul-wrenching to listen to, as acceptance of our own mortality is something which, as living beings, we all grow to fear perhaps more than anything else on this planet.”
Cohen’s approach of writing music to fit to his words, rather than the other way around, is one that absolutely works when you own the poetic arsenal that the likes of Cohen have in their locker. Unfortunately, there are few artists of his calibre who have the capacity of writing such powerful stories and lyrics like the man himself. To appreciate this album in its fullest one must realise that this is not the sort of album in which any tracks can be skipped for it to have the same resonance nor could individual songs be listened to and pack the same punch as they do in the context of the album. This is because, this is an ‘album’ in the truest sense of the word. It is an album intended to be put on a record player and for nobody to touch it, rather than just a selection of songs by an artist that have been thoughtlessly put together that have stand out singles or could be enjoyed when played on shuffle. My personal experience of attempting to listen to Cohen’s music in singles form, meant that I had dismissed him as an artist for numerous years after hearing Chelsea Hotel #2 as a stand alone track separate from New Skin for the Old Ceremony . This was because I didn’t really like his voice and failed to understand that the quality of his music does not stem from his vocal talent.
The music is written from his perspective in the first person, which is refreshing as so often musicians distance themselves from the stories and lyrics that they write, making the emotion in his voice feel so much more real. One might therefore also massively benefit from understanding a bit more about the context in which it was written as the first time I heard it on an active listen, whilst I was blown away, I was confused and slightly weirded out by the tone of the album, which of course dissipated once I understood that he passed away 19 days after its release in 2016. The album is quite overtly about his emotional preparation for death. He is burying the hatchet with certain people, apologising for some actions he has committed in his life and as a religious man is preparing himself to come face-to-face with his judgement and the afterlife.
The latter of these is abundantly clear on the title-track, in which Cohen sings ‘Hineni, hineni’ which is biblical Hebrew that translates as ‘I’m here’ before singing ‘I'm ready, my lord’. A wonderful touch, that serves to show the importance of his Judaism for him, was that he was joined by Cantor Gideon Zelermeyer and Shaar Hashomayim Choir, from his childhood synagogue in Quebec. Perhaps the most powerful song lyrically is Leaving the Table which is full of lyrics that would even make the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz feel moved. Whilst there are lines which express deep-rooted sorrow and remorse like 'I am so sorry for the ghost I made you' in the song Treaty which are of course pertinent, to me it is the lyrics ‘you don't need a lawyer, I am not making a claim' and ‘I don't need a lover so blow out the flame’ from Leaving the Table that show that he has reached the deepest levels of internal closure that he has no energy left to fight with or to live for. This is particularly soul-wrenching to listen to as acceptance of our own mortality is something which as living beings we all grow to fear perhaps more than anything else on this planet.
Yet for me, whilst it is hard to pick a best song, and I am of course in awe of the lyrics on that track, I can’t help but be most stunned by the combination of powerful lyrics with jaw-droppingly beautiful music on the songs Travelling Light and String Reprise / Treaty. The last song on the album sounds like a funeral procession performed by a string quartet as it acts as his final goodbye. This really gets me in the guts after listening to the previous eight tracks, put particularly as he gets to slide in a final verse to the earlier song Treaty. He sings:
I wish there was a treaty we could sign
It's over now, the water and the wine
We were broken then but now we're borderline
And I wish there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine
Meanwhile, Travelling Light which starts with the exquisite sound of the Greek bouzoukhi, which I later discovered was because he spent some years of his early life on an island in Greece with his long-time lover and muse Marianne Ihlen who passed away three months before he died, is musically my favourite song on the album. The bluegrass violin sound is awesome and fits perfectly as light relief from the intensity of the rest of the album. What I also find fascinating about the instrumentation is that, on this track he co-wrote the music with his son Adam, who produced much of the album. His involvement was instrumental as his dad suffered from multiple spine fractures after extensively touring. Due to his mobility issues, Adam helped his father record in the living room of his home in collaboration with others via e-mail. The story paints a rather sweet picture about how the album was created and demonstrates the importance of family being there for one another, even in one’s final days.
2016 was a year in which we lost many geniuses from the world of music, however, much more was perhaps made of Prince and David Bowie’s passing than Cohen’s. Whilst I of course believe that the other two musical greats deserved the spotlight and respect they got for the work they produced after they died, there seems to be something quite unjust that Cohen did not receive quite the same levels of reverence despite producing an album of this high level of quality. In the modern era, to make an album that hooks its listeners from start to finish is no mean feat, and although Cohen lived a colourful life and I am sure would not care greatly about his legacy, based on the levels of peace he seemed to make just before his death, it would be remiss of me not to say that I do not think this is not only one of the best albums we have reviewed on this website, but is a perfect album. There is not much higher praise I can give it than that. Whilst the likes of the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan are still making music into their senior years and should be credited for their dynamism and effort, I cannot think of a single artist who at the age of 82 had the capacity to make music so raw, timeless and powerful. Mr Cohen... Mazel Tov.