You Want It Darker
You Want It Darker, following rather quickly on the heels of Popular Problems, released in 2014, and Old Ideas, from 2012, is the third in a series of remarkable and deep late-career albums from Leonard Cohen that followed in the wake of his equally remarkable years of late-career tours and live albums. Like the previous two albums – in fact, like most of Leonard’s recordings dating back to Songs of Leonard Cohen from 1967, almost a half-century ago – You Want It Darker is a masterwork filled with conversational and hypnotically mesmerizing song-poems layered with meaning that both reveal more every time they are heard and suggest new avenues of meaning and interpretation rendering them ever mysterious.
The album begins with the title track, which Leonard released on Internet on September 21, his 82nd birthday. It is a song that only an older man could have written; a song from the perspective of someone who has lived long and is prepared for death.
Much was made of Leonard having released the song on his birthday. I think, though, what’s much more significant than his birthday is that he released the song during the Jewish month of Elul, a time when Jews prepare for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
It is a song Leonard sings directly to God. “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my lord,” he sings in the chorus, echoing the words of the biblical patriarch Abraham as he prepared for the near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. But, while Abraham might have been ready to face the death of his son, Leonard, here, seems prepared to confront his own mortality; something Jews traditionally think about during the High Holidays.
The melody – despite having been composed by collaborator Patrick Leonard – seems like it comes directly from the synagogue music Leonard heard growing up at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Westmount (a city within the city of Montreal). And, indeed, he turned to Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and the Shaar choir to sing with him on the song. The choir’s haunting harmonies are heard from the beginning of the song, Leonard himself sounds like he’s singing from the depths of his soul, and the final minute of the song is devoted to Zelermyer repeatedly, and seemingly distantly, singing the word “hineni.”
It is a stunning performance from Leonard, the choir and the cantor. And I must extend kudos to Adam Cohen, Leonard’s son and a talented singer-songwriter himself, who produced this track and much of the rest of the album.
The Shaar choir appears again later in the album to sing haunting harmonies that contrast beautifully with Leonard’s recitation-like singing on “It Seemed the Better Way,” another song – also with a melody composed by Patrick Leonard – in which he muses on the possibility of death.
One of the most affecting songs is “Traveling Light,” which I think may be a farewell song for Marianne Ihlen who died in July. The song can be interpreted as look back to Leonard’s times with Marianne – that inspired such songs as “Bird on the Wire” and, most notably, “So Long, Marianne – as well as an affirmation of the affection that remained after 50 or more years had passed since that time.
Some of the other songs reflect on love, or broken love, but always from a perspective of maturity and with possible layers of interpretation of the kind of love Leonard is referring to.
As I have noted before about Leonard’s songs, they are always open to interpretation and layered with ideas: ideas he had when he conceived the songs; ideas that continued to grow over the days, even years that he worked on them; and the ideas that each of us hears and develops from listening and re-listening to the songs. What I hear in these songs is not necessarily what you will hear, or, perhaps, not even what Leonard Cohen – part Jewish mystic, part Zen monk – might himself have intended.