Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker (2016)
With George Michael passing away on Boxing Day, it feels as if 2016 has been indelibly marked as the end of a musical era.
Between them, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, Prince and David Bowie characterised much of what was progressive around gender, sexuality and identity in music over the last couple of decades.
With their demise, it suddenly feels as if the musical world has been robbed of four of its most irreverent elder statesmen.
No album has quite captured that spirit like Leonard Cohen’s final release, You Want It Darker.
Like David Bowie’s Blackstar, it’s an album that appears to have been written with the awareness of impending death.
Yet the tone of the two albums is quite different.
Blackstar is joyous, defiant, uplifting – an affirmation of death as just another transformation.
On the final track, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” Bowie samples a motif from “A New Career in a New Town,” the track that leads into the second side of Low.
Over the course of that second side, Bowie all but removed his voice from the equation, transfiguring himself in the process.
It often feels as if a similar possibility for transfiguration – a voice contemplating a new kind of silence – hangs over Blackstar as well.
On You Want it Darker, however, the tone is much more sombre and contemplative.
In a way, it feels as if Cohen has been waiting for death his entire career. Certainly, he already seemed to be well into his eighties by the time he arrived at his first studio album.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, thatYou Want it Darker sees Cohen reassembling what at first glance seems to be a series of familiar tropes, images and melodies from his body of work.
As the album proceeds, however, these familiar moments are defamiliarised: gradually, their inherent morbidity is brought to the surface.
In that sense, it feels like one of the most naked albums in Cohen’s career, not least because his voice has proceeded past the point where it can really carry a melody any more.
Instead, this is a largely spoken album, albeit of a kind that allows Cohen to showcase the musicality and dexterity of his voice as never before.
Perpetually just on the verge of singing, there is a tremulous vulnerability to his diction that is utterly galvanising.
At the same time, the element of recitation makes this feel like a statement of last rites, a coming to terms with the past.
That’s not to say, however, that this is a spoken word album, as the surprisingly lush production fills in what Cohen’s voice can’t – or won’t – convey.
Yet there’s also a sense in which Cohen is competing with the production, especially the propulsive rhythms, particularly clear on the title track.
On the one hand, they capture the very defiance and life-spirit that enabled the album in the first place; on the other hand, they speak to a mounting, more impersonal inexorability.
As this tension unfolds, fragments and melodies from earlier albums keep flitting to the surface, with many of them coming from 1992’s The Future.
In particular, the refrain from “Democracy” – “Democracy is coming/To the USA” – hovers around the beginning and end of the album.
In a ghostly, inchoate way, it converges Cohen’s musical elegy with the haunted and haunting political atmosphere of 2016.
It also seems to establish 2016 as a year of musical elegy, with Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree now more or less acknowledged as the most critically acclaimed release of the year.
Yet part of the difficulty of elegy is needing to say something but finding nothing.
Between them, Bowie, Cohen, Prince and Michael’s last days and years captured the difficulty of that process.
While Bowie and Cohen went out with two of their best albums, Prince had been pottering around in a strange (if often brilliant) netherland for ages. Michael’ last studio release was 2004’s Patience and, before that, his last album of original material was 1996’s Older. It’s hard to deny that his exposure in 1998 arrested his career in some way.
Taken collectively, these last gestures capture the struggle to say something – anything – that haunts the later stages of a musician’s career, as well as the different stages at which “lateness” can set in.
What I love about You Want It Darker is that it seems to capture all these experiences and stages at once.
For while this may be one of Cohen’s most singular and personal albums, it is also the closest he comes to nothingness, to reducing his cryptic lyrics to a kind of koan whose significance lies merely in the act of speaking.
In the past, Cohen’s words have seemed to invite scrutiny and speculation, but no longer: here they have finally been polished to a luminous transparency and emptiness, mere vehicles for a voice to insist upon and contemplate its own continued existence against all odds.
Like calligraphic sketches, all but the most central details are omitted and each song seems to emerge instantaneously, a single and unified gesture.
Similarly, there is a sense in which this feeling of lateness has been and gone in Cohen’s career, leaving him with something more poignant and less sure of its gravity and grandiosity.
It’s that hesitant transparency that makes You Want It Darker one of the most profound gifts a musician can make with their last album – a gift rich enough to touch all the other musical elegies rendered this year in turn.
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