More than a year after he died, Leonard Cohen won a Grammy at the weekend for this album. Best rock performance weirdly enough. This review, from October 2016, may have been lost in the mix back then so here’s a reprise.
You Want It Darker (Sony)
You want it darker? You want it funnier? Deeper? More soothing? More spiritual? Tick, tick, tick, tick and tick. Leonard Cohen is happy to please.
And please he will in the most fundamental way because whatever else is said about You Want It Darker, it is such a pleasure to listen to.
The sounds his producer Adam “yes, I’m his son” Cohen, and his predecessor Pat Leonard, have shaped are ideal – perfect, really - for the voice, the superbly crafted songs and the message.
The finger-picked guitar, throwing back to his earliest recordings, at the start of On The Levelmerges into a richer sound where organ and piano interchange soul and pre-rock, and the female voices interchange gospel and front bar. The wide country guitar of Leaving The Tablefits with a song, and its singing, that is something like Jim Reeves trying to be the Ink Spots, with nothing but velvet around it.
There’s a choir on two songs, from the Montreal synagogue in which Leonard’s great grandfather and grandfather held high position, and they bring a definite sense of soulful comfort mixed with humanity. This is especially true in the title track but almost as powerfully in It Seemed The Better Way where, preceding and then in the wake of, a violin that quietly weeps, they subtly lift you.
The synagogue’s cantor, Gideon Zelermyer provides a keening, gently ascendant vocal solo in the album’s opening, which places you both right in the now over a lightly prowling bassline, but also in another time and place, enclosed and gazing upwards.
Just as importantly, the production creates the tonal character, the atmosphere in which Leonard appears. Whether it is in the almost stately elegance of the album-closing reprise ofTreaty (whose original appearance, second track in, has a definite edge to its orchestration) or the way If I Didn’t Have Your Love and Steer Your Way create quiet waves of warmth around the voice, you are never left without comfort on this album.
That is helpful if the album is meant to be some valedictory stroll, or maybe even a Bowie-like self-curated, farewell-meets-testimonial. Which is what this looked like being as we neared release: the man himself, at 82, having said he was preparing for death.
(Let one of the things to ponder about this album be how the absence of a question mark in that title plays with our notion of who - L. Cohen? His audience? God? - really wants it darker or feels it darker.)
Having emerged from what appears to be a grim period of either physical or mental health, Leonard has subsequently walked back that fatalistic assertion. With droll jocularity he declared last week at his one public appearance to talk about the album that “One is given to self-dramatization from time to time. I intend to live forever.”
To borrow a line from this album, reports of his imminent demise from his own mouth “sounded like the truth, but it’s not the truth today”. Or not entirely, nor entirely new.
Indeed, if you were to draw conclusions from the lyrics that Leonard was coming to terms with the end – and along the way making amends, providing guidance and wondering what would lie next - you would be (a) right; but also (b) about 50 years behind.
In this career, spirituality and the physical haven’t so much battled it out as adjusted themselves in an ever changing dance. So You Want It Darker is a continuation of a discussion Leonard has been having with himself, and us since the very start, albeit a discussion taken a step further into “reality” with 2014’s Popular Problems, and further still here.
Remember too that this is the man who, with an amused sense of premature decrepitude, 30 years ago sang “I ache in the places where I used to play”. Who four years before that offered anticipatory submission in “If it be your will/That I speak no more/And my voice be still/As it was before/I will speak no more”.
In that vein, he begins this album by saying to his god, or that god’s presence, “If you are the dealer, let me out of the game/If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame/If thine is the glory, I must be the shame”.
The dialogues Leonard has across these nine songs are with that god, and with us, with another who is loved and loves back (“that’s how broken I would be, what my life would seem to me/if I didn’t have your love to make it real”), and most keenly with himself.
He may say “I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game” but it’s as believable as when he says “I struggled with some demons, they were middle class and tame”. Statements true enough, as far as they go, but hardly enough, or the final word.
And as ever the dialogues are sharp but not dangerous, amused but not slanted, Leonard prepared to laugh at himself while remaining serious in his intentions.
“I’ve seen you change the water into wine, I’ve seen you change it back to water too/I sit at your table every night, I try but I just don’t get high with you.”
Fate’s intervention the only crimp in this assumption – and maybe the Nobel committee’s intervention the only honour left to land – this album confirms he has much more to say, much more to share, as a sage who doesn’t offer himself as such but rather as a fellow questioner stumbling through.
Yes, Leonard, if you’re asking, we do want it darker.