“Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.”
So said Leonard Cohen to David Remnick in a New Yorker profile published a couple of weeks back. The piece has been widely noticed for Cohen’s striking pronouncement therein — “I’m ready to die” — which has been widely interpreted as a sort of fatalistic admission that the end is near. Taken out of context, it certainly reads that way, but Cohen has clarified his statement in the days since: “I’ve always been into self-dramatization,” he chuckled at a Q&A session in Los Angeles last week. In fact, he continued,”I intend to live forever.”
Both quotes are interesting to consider in the context of You Want It Darker, the 14th studio album of a long and distinguished career. The album was released on Friday, which means that if you’re a Cohen fan, you may well have been listening to it avidly all weekend. Like all of Cohen’s records, it’s a subtle, deep, intriguing piece of work, a collection of songs that reveal more about themselves — and thus, about the album as a whole — every time you listen to them.
At face value, You Want It Darker is certainly, well, dark. As I noted when I wrote a brief first-impressions type piece here earlier in the month, when the album was streaming on NPR, there are images of dying light and various forms of departure throughout the lyrics: the very first lines you hear, from the title track, are “If you are the dealer/ I’m out of the game,” an image echoed three songs later in a song called “Leaving the Table.” Elsewhere, Cohen meditates on long-lost love affairs, reminisces about travels both physical and philosophical, and laments the state of the world outside his window.
But the more you listen to You Want It Darker, the more you start to sense a certain levity. For one thing, our hero is as wryly funny as ever — at one point, he growls “I was fighting with temptation, but I didn’t want to win/ A man like me don’t like to see temptation caving in,” and you can almost see him raising his glass of red wine with a little half-smile to you. Cohen has never been as bleak or depressing as his detractors like to make him out to be, of course — it’s only people who don’t understand Leonard Cohen who reduce him to “wrist-slitting music” or other similarly simplistic, obnoxious epithets. Still, even aficionados could be forgiven for expecting this album to be a downbeat, sad farewell. As it turns out, it’s not that, not exactly.
Instead, it’s… reflective, more than anything. The abiding impression is of a man, well, putting his affairs in order. The last decade or so has been, quietly, a creative Indian summer for Cohen — he’s released five albums since the turn of the millennium, after only three during the entirety of the 1980s and ’90s. You Want It Darker feels like a consolidation of that period; album highlight “Treaty,” for instance, has apparently been a work in progress for some 20 years, and the mood of the finished product is akin to sitting by the last embers of a fire, alone in the dead of the night. It’s melancholy, sure, but the fire is still warm, and comforting, and beautiful in its own solemn way.
This is the mood throughout You Want It Darker: Cohen is still working, sitting by that fire, because he still has things to say. In fact, he has more to say than ever. You get the impression that this late-career creative flourish isn’t so much a race against the clock (like, say, David Bowie’s was, sadly) as it is a simple product of the fact that the more time Cohen spends on this earth, the more he comes to understand about his perennial lyrical subjects: love, God, humanity and its intricate interrelations, the “popular problems” that gave their title to his last record. This is the sort of subject matter that one can only address with the benefit of life experience.
For whatever reason, much of our culture’s musical output is interwoven with our fetishization and veneration of youth: sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are so deeply linked that reciting their names has become a cliché. Perhaps it’s because music is the most visceral of art forms, the one that makes you want to get up and dance and sing along. These are things you can write a song about when you’re 20 — and, indeed, that’s when you’re best qualified to do so. Cohen’s work has, to state the very, very obvious, never been like that: his preoccupations are those of poets and novelists (and, of course, he has also written both poetry and novels.) And so he continues to patiently hone his craft, nearly half a century since the release of his first record.
It’s one of the cruelties of our nature that it takes a lifetime to accumulate the wisdom and experience and compassion that Cohen puts on display here; that it’s the end of life that seems to bring the clarity and stillness necessary to express everything you’ve learned. You Want It Darker finds Leonard Cohen in perfect equilibrium — it’s the work of a man who has lived 82 years on this earth and still, as Cohen himself put it, “has all [his] marbles.” It’s the work of a man who is putting his house in order. When his death does eventually come, we will all be poorer for it — but equally, we should celebrate a life well lived, a life that informs every word on this beautiful collection of songs.