You Want It Darker: The Send-Off Leonard Cohen Deserves
On Nov. 7, legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen passed away at the age of 82. Throughout his nearly half-century-spanning career in music, he released 14 studio albums, with the last being released three weeks before his death. Like David Bowie before him with Blackstar, Cohen used his final album, You Want It Darker, to explore his own psyche in his final days. The themes between the two are very similar, touching on religion, personal closure, and fulfillment in the face of mortality, but just as no two people go through this process exactly the same, no two artists would use the same interpretation in discussing something as personal as one’s own death.
From the outset, You Want It Darker is more a conversation with the listener, rather than being strictly a performance. Cohen succeeds in creating a dark, ambient spoken-word-focused LP that blends menacing growls with a steady current of strings. The sparse percussion throughout the album resists any flourishes and keeps volume to a minimum; clearly the focus here is meant to be entirely on Cohen, and rightfully so. The vocals found on this album are astonishing, at times so intimate that they can border on uncomfortable, especially given the subject matter at hand. Still, Cohen deals with the topic of his own mortality with humanity and humor, and commands the listener’s attention throughout, like if Swordfishtrombones-era Tom Waits collaborated with Scott Walker.
The title track is emblematic of the album as a whole: no excessive instrumentation, just Cohen, a chorus of backing vocals, drums that serve only to keep the beat, and a simple, subdued bass line that permeates the entire mix and carries the track along. The eschewing of the piano in favor of an organ lends credence to the religious themes throughout, and the more skeletal sound of the organ – opposed to the deep, resonant tones from a traditional piano – adds a sense of desolation on the album’s darker moments (“Traveling Light,” “It Seemed a Better Way”), while simultaneously uplifting the listener during the sweeter and more nostalgic pieces (“On the Level”).
Normally I don’t fall on one side or the other in the ongoing war between headphones and hi-fi speakers – diff’rent strokes, as they say – but this is one record that you’re going to want headphones for. The level of detail in a recording as sparse as this is incredible, especially where the bass and the weird little instrumental touches are concerned. There are bits of steel guitar, keyboard riffs, and classical guitar performances by Cohen’s son Adam, all sprinkled throughout the record in such subtle layers that they could have conceivably go completely undetected if I decided to embrace my inner philistine and listen to the album on my phone speakers.
If you, like me, only know Leonard Cohen as “that guy who sings ‘Hallelujah,’” I assure you, there’s way more to him than his biggest hit would suggest. “Hallelujah,” while undeniably a moving and lyrically evocative song, hasn’t exactly aged well. You Want It Darker is Cohen in a completely different context, and shows us an 82-year-old man with better songwriting and more contemporary recording sensibilities than artists less than half his age. It’s not an album to lift yourself up with, but whatever you do, don’t miss out.