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You Want It Darker
Since emerging as a long in the tooth heritage act, Leonard Cohen’s output has been a lot stronger than it’s really had any right to be. Popular Problems and Old Ideas proved to not only be as good as anything in Cohen’s oeuvre, but also sported a playfulness, a willingness to experiment and a lyrical slyness that you can’t help but feel comes with age. On You Want It Darker Cohen produces both the best album he’s made since his 2008 comeback and one of his best albums yet.
Something that’s been especially strong about Cohen’s recent records is how modern they sound sonically whilst playing with very traditional phrases. Produced largely by his son Adam – who recently described how much fun the album was to make – You Want It Darker sounds absolutely gorgeous. Cohen’s lyrics have always played with religious imagery and this is especially evident on an effort which seems to crib a lot from religious hymns and choirs. This could come across as sounding cultish, or just plain kitschy but this largely avoided thanks to Cohen Jr.’s production.
With more of a pop sense than his father, he employs choirs and strings as though sampling them. When these elements are weaved in – the eponymous opening track being a brilliant example – they have the effect of blowing the song wide open and creating untold amounts of space. Choirs themselves sound unbelievably clear, as though on a Blu-Ray disc, and they’re often augmented with crisply automated percussion-punchy snares and lazy hi-hats which gives it an utterly mesmerising effect.
On ‘Leaving the Table’ and ‘It Seemed the Better Way’, wandering basslines meander under the choirs (fluttery mandolins do the same on ‘Traveling Light’), lending an almost surreal quality to the songs, transforming them into dreamy cabaret pieces. Other songs consist largely of simple piano melodies, though a scratchy guitar is allowed to burst in to create tension and occasionally breaking into a waltz-like solo.
All of this musical backing largely keeps the songs uncluttered so that Cohen can take centre stage, and without a doubt You Want It Darker is one of his most intriguing vocal performances to take. Virtually a spoken word record, Cohen’s performance is richly understated which adds to the mystique. Confessions like “I used to play a mean guitar”, “I’m angry and I’m tired all the time” and “I don’t need a lover, so blow out the flame” are lines that’d be overly-emphasised in the hands of another singer, but with Cohen they’re simple statements, begging to listened to more and more. Cohen is as lyrical sparse as the albums music, but those lyrics are the work of a man at the top of his came.
On ‘You Want It Darker’, he muses that there’s “no lover in the story, but the story’s just the same”, revealing in the process that he’s abandoned a lot of his traditional lyrical themes. Instead he focuses on morality, looking ahead to his own demise. The deceptively plain lyrics are pregnant with hidden meanings, no better heard than on ‘Traveling Light’, as Cohen ponders how soon he’ll have to forget the “things he knew”. Subtly, images of destruction – “bodies tired and lame” – are weaved throughout the album until the penultimate track, ‘Steer Your Way’, on which Cohen laments about the demise of “truths you believed in yesterday” and the “smashed cosmic model that blinded every view”.
This scale of segregation, on a cosmic level, brings to mind the ending of Mike McCormack’s recent novel Solar Bones, where the deceased narrator becomes chillingly aware of the amount of collapse around him, ranging from human social and economic systems to collapse on a cosmic infinite level. That would have been a staggering way to finish the album but Cohen stumbles a little by closing with a relatively lightweight and mostly instrumental effort.
Earlier this year Marianne Jensen, subject of some of Cohen’s most unabashedly romantic work, passed away at the age of 81. In an open letter published shortly thereafter the one-year-older Cohen stated that he was “just behind”. Where David Bowie confronted death with typical grandiosity and the theatrics of Blackstar, You Want it Darker catches Cohen attacking similar themes with his usual wryness and honesty, befitting his status as a journeyman of the darker side of life.