It’s probably no coincidence that You Want It Darker begins with the sound of monkish, tribal chanting – Cohen was a monk himself for a significant portion of his life – but truth be told, I’m scared to write anything about the man’s life in relation to this album. It may be the near-reverence I feel when listening to pretty much any lyric he’s ever written, like I’ve chanced upon some ancient text so far beyond priceless I shouldn’t even be reading it. It may be a lack of self-confidence in the words that I write in comparison – what the hell does a 19-year-old kid know about Leonard fuckin’ Cohen anyway? More likely, though, it’s just the obscure nature of the man himself, who can pour so much of his life into his lyrics without ever giving away the type of man he really is. All this to say, I would love to talk about Marianne, and Cohen’s years as a monk, and countless other things Cohen super-nerds pore over and dissect like a seven-part book series you have to read before the end of summer, but it would be doing a disservice to the humble simplicity of the music on display.
You Want It Darker is almost deceptively straight-forward, serving up pretty much everything Cohen fans have come to expect. There are lines he could easily have written in his 30s (you smiled at me like I was young, it took my breath away) except that the passing of time has taken the sting out of their sardonic humour and turned them towards being actually true, and it feels the more emotional for it. He seems to touch on both the Holocaust and the crucifixion of Jesus in a glancing, I-remember-this-shitty-time way, his age-ravaged voice giving the impression of a man who knows infinitely more than he could ever write in a bunch of four-minute songs. There’s surely enough unreleased Cohen material to fill several Odysseys, so it may not entirely be this listener’s imagination at work.
Yet the major theme of You Want It Darker is not of tragedy or loss or sorrow, but more a contented resignation. If song names like “Leaving the Table” didn’t signal it already, Darker sees Cohen putting a lifetime of ghosts more or less to rest. “Traveling Light” has a nomad-esque character turning their back on love for a life of travel, while “Leaving the Table” employs a card game metaphor for love, struggle or even life itself. “Treaty” is perhaps the most heartbreaking and pivotal song, a deeply felt but still bitter apology from one side of a battlefield to another from a lover who’s been fighting so long he’s stopped caring who wins. The song weighs heavy with pain, but the catharsis comes not with the beautiful flurry of strings which take up most of the “String Reprise” but, as Cohen often chooses it to, in the barest and most minimalist of moments. With the simplest of piano and the barely felt thump of drums scraping against Cohen’s ragged growl of a voice we hear the stripping bare of eighty years of frustration, disappointment and self-loathing; we hear the forgiveness and at least an attempt at letting go, illuminated beautifully in the way that only Leonard Cohen ever really could do. And it’s beautiful.
One wonders if the band Mudvayne, featuring the spiritual bassist, Ryan Martini would somehow fall into a similar strain as Mr. Cohen?
“I’m so sorry for the ghost I made you be/only one of us was real and that was me”