The haunting, poetic You Want It Darker, which turned out to be the final product of Leonard Cohen’s remarkable late-career creative peak, almost didn’t happen. The project stalled because of the 82-year-old artist’s health problems and those of collaborator Patrick Leonard. Cohen’s son Adam revived it, setting up his father in a medical chair at home, where he could add his inimitable vocals to each track.
The result, which came out in October, only about a month before Cohen’s death, opens with the title track, which seems to be about surrendering to the end of life. “I’m ready, my Lord,” Cohen sings on a recording that includes backing by a synagogue choir and that would fit right in at a funeral. “I’m out of the game,” he adds, using a line that he repeats later in the album on “Leaving the Table.”
Then comes “Treaty,” another melancholic number, in which Cohen proclaims, “I’m angry and I’m tired all the time.” You want it darker? Keep listening.
As any Cohen fan knows, the mood here doesn’t exactly represent a change of pace. This was a man who spent his entire career writing songs infused with sorrow and who was waving goodbye to the world as early as 2012 (see “Going Home” on Old Ideas). Befitting the title, though, this album is perhaps Cohen’s darkest yet.
That may make it sound less than inviting. But Cohen remained a master till the end at mixing regret with joy, surrender with persistence, and nods to mortality with a pervasive love of life. I find myself returning repeatedly to the album, drawn in by the emotion-soaked, violin- and organ-spiced music; the concise, evocative lyrics; and the singer’s mesmerizing, deep-throated baritone.
You Want It Darker is a fitting last addition to a superb catalog from a performer whose likes we won’t see again. He was a modest man who talked about how it took him a long time to write a lyric and who sang about how Hank Williams was “a hundred floors above me in the tower of song.” In fact, as this album reminds us, Cohen belongs with the greats, right up on the tower’s top floor.
Thank you for writing about my favorite singer/songwriter and thank you for your very astute review of Cohen’s “You Want it Darker.” I didn’t like the album when I first listened because it was SO dark, but the more I play it, the more I like it. And it’s even more poignant now that you have just said he sat up in a medical chair recording the lyrics. Thank you.
The haunting lyrics and melodies of Leonard Cohen will remain unique and unmatched. His Jewish heritage, his ethnic and social upbringing, his life experience, or all or more than that contributed to nearly 70 years of lyric and music that will endure. I have followed Leonard’s music since 1966 and see him as a voice of perception and insight and foresight.