There is no question mark at the end of the title of Leonard Cohen’s 14th studio album. Whilst other recent album titles have shared a certain wry detachment (Old Ideas and Popular Problems), You Want It Darker seems to engage directly in a dialogue with the audience.
Rather than questioning listeners’ supposed bloodlust, it boldly asserts it as a statement of fact. Nevertheless, this being Leonard Cohen, it comes across less as accusatory and more as a thinly veiled piece of self-mockery. Where once Cohen might have been easily dismissed as a misery-laden troubadour, the popularity he has commanded in his twilight years has elevated him to the status of a beloved, wise elder.
Now 82 and apparently unlikely to tour again, Cohen admits that You Want It Darker nearly had to be abandoned when producer, co-writer and arranger Patrick Leonard and Cohen himself both suffered health issues (Cohen’s back injury left him largely confined to a medical chair during recording sessions). It is as a result of this that Cohen’s son Adam, himself an acclaimed musician, stepped in to a production role.
Whilst Leonard could not be present for the musical sessions, it’s clear that his guiding presence is everywhere, father and son clearly having a very strong mutual understanding. There are the slow, stoical tempos (it seems unlikely Cohen will ever again attempt something as breathtaking and cinematic as First We Take Manhattan), the sparse and melancholy arrangements and that very distinctive approach to melody and harmony, informed by gospel and the blues but achieving a sense of meditativeness and spirituality very much its own.
Yet You Want It Darker also differs notably from its immediate predecessors too. Whilst Old Ideas and Popular Problems began to integrate some of the musical concepts that informed the live performances during the long tour, You Want It Darker feels like the apotheosis of that process. It feels like the most human of his late works, with acoustic instrumentation carefully balanced alongside drum programming and vintage keyboards. On Treaty, there is a sublime balance struck between Sean Hurley’s beautifully recorded acoustic bass and a range of synth string sounds (the song is reprised at the album’s close with a string section).
Traveling Light has something of the European folk arrangement style of the live version of The Gypsy Wife, whilst elsewhere there’s a recurring country lilt, not least on the strings on Steer Your Way. The exquisite, moving Leaving The Table has a gloriously twangy guitar solo, one of those very subtle improvisations that both restates and thoughtfully develops the main melody. Then there are also ingenious twists on the blending of Cohen’s resonant baritone with other voices – in addition to the usual ‘angels’, there are some genuine choral arrangements too.
It has become something of a cliche to identify the various references to mortality in later Cohen albums (indeed, many had 2004‘s Dear Heather pinned as his final statement), but You Want It Darker is full of visions of the end. This does not mean that is is a cold or even necessarily a saddening album. Cohen’s sly and mischievous humour keeps shining through those cracks where the light gets in. Traveling Light paints Cohen as an archetypal ageing troubadour (“I’m running late, they’ll close the bar”). Leaving The Table, both graceful and poignant (“I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game”) is imbued with warmth as well as resignation.
Vocally, Cohen continues to abandon conventional singing. With advancing age, his voice has deepened further, and even as a speaking voice it is rich and full of wisdom. On the title track, he comes to resemble a manipulated human voice (weirdly resembling Yello’s Dieter Meier at times) even without the aid of effects. Cohen also has that uncanny ability to inhabit the mood and feeling of a melody even when merely outlining its shape. This is a masterful skill, one that helps explain why many of these songs feel so overwhelming. They confront the inevitable end that informs our deepest fears, yet they also very much serve as a healing balm.