Music Review: You Want it Darker/Leonard Cohen – Released October 21, 2016 (Columbia) ★★★★★

by Gargs Allard

Leonard Cohen said in a recent interview that if he is to live much longer, he will have to eat because he can’t see how it’s possible to get any skinnier and keep his body and soul together at the same time. If Cohen is not eating properly, he certainly is consuming inspiration at a rate that more than makes up for it in song.

Cohen, an admittedly tidy person, doesn’t think he will be able to clean up and finish all the songs he is working on at the moment before he permanently joins that tower a little further down the track. Nevertheless, this is the third high quality record he has put out since 2010 – an accomplishment that hasn’t gone unnoticed by some of music’s brightest stars.

Bob Dylan, for example, who is no stranger to putting out great music in his twilight years, thinks Cohen’s recent musical output is right up there with some of the best stuff the native Montreal artist has ever done. While some people complain that Cohen’s music is too dark – hence the title of his latest album, Dylan, who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature for his lifetime of work, doesn’t see it that way, as he was quoted recently as such in the New Yorker:

“I see no disenchantment in Leonard’s lyrics at all,” Dylan said. “There’s always a direct sentiment, as if he’s holding a conversation and telling you something, him doing all the talking, but the listener keeps listening. He’s very much a descendant of Irving Berlin, maybe the only songwriter in modern history that Leonard can be directly related to. Berlin’s songs did the same thing. Berlin was also connected to some kind of celestial sphere. And, like Leonard, he probably had no classical-music training, either. Both of them just hear melodies that most of us can only strive for. Berlin’s lyrics also fell into place and consisted of half lines, full lines at surprising intervals, using simple elongated words. Both Leonard and Berlin are incredibly crafty. Leonard particularly uses chord progressions that seem classical in shape. He is a much more savvy musician than you’d think.”

If Cohen has some access to celestial spheres that most of us can never touch, we are lucky that there are songwriters like him who are capable of bringing the heavens, if we would only be patient enough to really listen. And if one is patient enough to get by Cohen’s ever-deepening vocals that sometimes seem to talk more than sing, then they become more qualified to be treated to something rare and special in this world.

In the cover art, Cohen appears gaunt and closed in with his black hat, grey sports coat, dark sunglasses, and what one could imagine as his last cigarette; while at the same time, the tunes on the nine-song LP express an almost disarming openness and honesty.

In the spooky, hair-raising “You Want it Darker,” Cohen proclaims “I’m ready, my Lord.” While this seems to obviously pertain to the end of his current time here on earth, it also seems to mean the duality and the paradoxical irony of living in the material world, hence the lyric, “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game/If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame/If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame/You want it darker/We kill the flame.”

The monk’s humming choir runs seamlessly with the sparse musical arrangement that gradually builds, while the lyrics allude to the notion that our rapport of roles with God on this planet are rather base and relative to our needs and situation, more specifically while are living in an ever-changing and temporal world.

“Treaty” may be about a failed or star-crossed relationship with a woman or perhaps even God – because with Cohen’s many religious overtones and philosophical mind, you just never know. He mentions a love between them but with lines like “I’m so sorry for the ghost I made you be,” and “only one of us was real and that was me,” it seems to indicate that he either no longer believes in the woman who he projected as someone she wasn’t or he has turned agnostic or both. The thinly sparse piano arrangement sets the tone, while Cohen’s deep voice echoes a kind of detached sorrow that grips the listener with its powers. There also appears possibly to be a double entendre with the use of the word “aerial” in the lines, “You were my ground, my safe and sound/You were my aerial.” “Aerial” does not only pertain to the more perilous sky, in opposition to Cohen’s “ground” and “safe and sound,” but “Aerial” was also a poem written by Sylvia Plath just before her death by suicide.

“Keep it On the Level” is very accessible due to its beautiful melody and melodic background vocals of Dana Glover. On top of that, the song carries with it almost the perfect set of lyrics by Cohen, ending with the clever turn-of-phrase “When I turned my back on the devil, I turned my back on an angel too.” It appears to be a song about not giving into the temptation of having a fling with a young woman who is very willing when the man is many years her senior, much like Cohen.

The slow electric Western-blues riff  and the steel pedal guitar in the song “Leaving the Table”, both played by Bill Botrell, work very well with the various string-instruments, mostly played by Zac Rae. The song appears to be about fence-mending in relationships, a theme that Cohen has often sung about, but not always as handsomely as this. The lyrics “I don’t need a lover – no,no,no – the wretched beast is tame/I don’t need a lover; so blow out the flame” appears to refer directly to Cohen’s sex drive. But the song is not only about the weakening of the libido but gradually leaving the arena of life. Cohen’s intermittent moans and groans really captures the spirit Cohen has successfully conveyed here..

Perhaps the best song on the album is “Traveling Light.” The gorgeously arranged harmonic vocals, coupled with the elongated strums of the violin enchant one’s ears. Cohens short, terse lines make insightful poetry: “I’m traveling light/It’s au revoir/My once so bright/My fallen star/I’m running late/They’ll close the bar/I used to play/.One mean guitar/I guess I’m just/Somebody who/Has given up/On the me and you/I’m not alone/I’ve met a few/Traveling light like/We used to do.”

No note on the nine-song album fails to deliver. So much so that every song on this record is of the kind of high quality one would expect on a “best of” compilation, certainly not the 14th studio album of a 82-year-old man . The songs seem to flow into one another with strings that are meant for denizens of higher planets, lyrics that are meant for the most philosophically minded, and romantic touches that pull at the heart in only ways that a Leonard Cohen record could.

Make no mistake about it, whether Cohen is ever able to record again or not, this could serve well as a goodbye record and Cohen pours his heart into it. From the beginning note of the opening song, “You Want it Darker,” to the ending note of the reprise of the album, Cohen delivers the goods of a man who is speaking his truth, not exactly by overindulgent confession but in a skillful way that cracks the universe a bit more and lets in just a little more light.

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