True legends never lose the creative spark. 2016 was a year that saw not one, but two magnificent late-period albums from revered musicians on their deathbed. In January, David Bowie released the haunting Blackstar just days before his passing, and on November 11th, only three weeks after the release of Leonard Cohen’s You Want it Darker, we received news that he had died at the age of 82.
Like Blackstar, You Want it Darker is an album that stares death boldly in the face and isn’t afraid to sing about it. ‘Sing’ perhaps isn’t the right word, though – Cohen’s voice on this record has been reduced through the years to a powerful and gravelly mutter which provides the perfect vessel for his spoken word poetry. It’s the voice of a man who has lived for a very long time and seen far too much, imparting his world-weary wisdom at the gates of death before departing forever.
Cohen’s words, then, are a heavy focus of the album, and they remain as vivid and poetic as they were 50 years ago on the classic Songs of Leonard Cohen. As on that album, an undercurrent of religion and faith flows through the songs on You Want it Darker, never far away from the spectres of love, separation and, yes, death. The album’s title track, opening the record, features an ominous bassline on top of a ghostly organ and choir vocals, while Cohen ponders the existence of God and his own mortality:
Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame
It’s a spine-tingling introduction that lets the listener know straight away: this is a lights-out, late-night album that demands your attention, despite never rising above a murmur. That isn’t to say its all gloom, however. ‘On the Level’ is a lovely, mid-tempo ballad that features some soulful backing vocals and lilting organs and drums, while ‘If I Didn’t Have Your Love’ is a heartfelt piano piece in which Cohen pays tribute to the healing effects of love.
The funereal ‘It Seemed the Better Way’ finds Cohen in more somber mood, looking back on his career and his poetry, questioning its validity and its persistence after the passing of so many years:
Sounded like the truth
Seemed the better way
Sounded like the truth
But it’s not the truth today
Whatever Cohen himself makes of his legacy, its clear from the songs on You Want It Darker that he never gave up searching for truth and understanding in poetry, even at the grand old age of 82. He wasn’t content to settle with his already substantial achievements, but was instead always pushing his music forward and asking questions. The magnificent ‘Steer Your Way’ at the albums end is similarly exploratory, and finds Cohen navigating through an apocalyptic landscape of passing years, forgotten faith and bodily decay. Cohen is at the end of his journey here, and one particularly chilling lyric from this song sticks in my mind above all others: ‘Please don’t make me go there / Though there be a God or not’.
In creating You Want it Darker, Leonard Cohen faced his own death with equal parts fear and bravery. I find it really quite staggering that any artist could create a work that ranks among their very best within the final weeks of their life, but that is exactly what Cohen has done with his last album. You Want it Darker is a powerful, authoritative and world-weary send off from one of music’s greatest poets.