These songs are never as melancholy as they are somber.
A quick survey of Leonard Cohen’s discography reveals that the 82-year-old Canadian hasn’t always been the most prolific recording artist. Until now, the 1970s saw the highest yield of original recordings with four albums issued between 1971 and 1979. He issued only two efforts during the 1980s and the 1990s brought only one. He wasn’t entirely invisible during that time. Younger artists, most notably, Jeff Buckley, recorded his songs and there were live albums and Best-Of packages available to anyone curious about what the gravel-voiced poet was all about. Then, in 2001 a comparative avalanche of material began with Ten New Songs.
The generation that had known Cohen mostly for having penned “Hallelujah” began to see him as a vibrant artist with plenty left to say. Dear Heather arrived in 2004, followed by three in this current decade, including You Want It Darker, which comes just two years after his last studio effort, Popular Problems. (There have been two live since then.) It may or may not be the last studio record he releases. In a recent New Yorker interview he revealed that he’s become comfortable with the inevitability of his own death and although he has an impressive body of unfinished works available he may or may not finish them.
Does that make You Want It Darker more or less remarkable? It’s difficult to say. It is a noteworthy record by any artist at any stage of their career, let alone one with an output as influential and wise as Cohen’s. It is appropriately tidy. At nine tracks and 36 minutes one senses that there is not a breath or beat out of place, not one moment wasted.
The title cut leads the way, opening with an appropriately quiet, meditative feel, on which the speaker announces himself ready for the inevitable closing of the curtains. It is a gentle reminder that no matter what kind of life we’ve lived the outcome is the same, the life with purpose and positivity comes to the same close as one lived in violence and discomfort. What does it all mean, then? That’s a question Cohen explores over the next series of songs, as he acknowledges the cycle of life and death during “Treaty,” as much a plea for reconciliation between lovers as it is an acknowledgement that all things land in life for reasons we can never know or comprehend.
“On the Level” is a soulful and soul-stirring examination of the fine line between light and dark, a glance at the wrongs one has done and an understanding that regrets rarely speak as deeds. The tune lasts just long enough to make its case, not one breath or chord too long, not one measure too far. Yet neither it nor any of the material here feels hasty. Instead, the brevity enhances the meaning there and during “Leaving the Table,” an examination of those moments one spends preparing for their glide toward that final and all-encompassing light.
These songs are never as melancholy as they are somber. Melancholy would suggest some sense of regret and here there is none. “Traveling Light” isn’t just the story of a man without attachments, it’s the story of a soul leaving the material world, saying goodbye to all that has kept it confined in its vessels lifetime, the walls, the floors and the attachments of the heart. Its beauty comes not from its desire to hang on to the unfilled relationships and goals but from its ability to let it go and become some other form of energy.
Cohen’s voice remains unwavering there and on the darkest hour of the record, “Seemed a Better Way,” where the strings and percussion are so hushed that they’re almost not there at all. There are moments when one wonders if the music itself will soon fade into nothingness with seemingly no reason. Then it does, vanishing from our ears to become an apparition of memory. On the following tune, “Steer Your Way,” both the instruments and Cohen’s voice rise to their greatest intensity as he offers his parting wisdom, to be pure in intentions and actions and conscious so that at some point we’ll have to account for it all, even if only to ourselves. The intensity of those words keeps the listener still for the track’s four minutes, keenly aware that we’re hearing something not just profound but also something deeply true.
It could be all over then and it essentially is, save for a solemn, largely voiceless reprise of “Treaty.” This is the exit music for a film and, maybe, for a life. When Cohen appears in the track’s final moments only to speak a few lines it carries a definitive finality. If You Want It Dark stands as his final statement (and, given the heaviness of the subject matter and the power of the performances, maybe it should be), then it’s the best one we could hope for, the sign of a man with all his faculties still with him, his heart and mind in the right place and a soul that knows it’s imperfect but can’t help wanting to summon and spread beauty, even at the moment of death.