Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Leonard Cohen: You Want it Darker (2016)

I’m traveling light
It’s au revoir
My once so bright
My fallen star

I’m running late
They’ll close the bar
I used to play
One mean guitar

In 2016, we lost David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. What a horrible year. Leonard Cohen is (was) unquestionably my favourite singer, songwriter, and poet. I hoped the day would never come when we would have to say goodbye to the greatest Canadian, the best songwriter of the 20th and early 21st centuries. He was funny, intellectual, self-effacing, never dull. I have never seen or heard or read an interview where he wasn't entirely captivating. Even in interviews covering ground that was always familiar to me, I was enthralled. I hung on every word. Every live performance was a gift to the audience. I always admired him. I'm still upset. I had hoped that we would have a few more years with him. I was lucky to have seen him in concert three times. I have his autograph on a CD. I will never part with it.

I learned of Leonard's death while I was on the train from Ottawa to Toronto, during a delay where the train just sat unmoving on the tracks. During the delay, I read the news on my phone and wondered who else was reading the same sad news. And then it spilled onto Facebook and soon everyone knew.

Cohen was notoriously slow when it came to releasing records, so it is somewhat amazing that in his later years we were treated to Old Ideas (2012), Popular Problems (2014), Can't Forget (2015), and You Want it Darker (2016), not to mention Songs from the Road (2010), Live from London (2009), and the Live in Fredericton EP (2012). They are all great, too. It was a good time to be a Cohen fan. At 82, he had one more release ready. At 82, he was gone too soon. I'm not sure how I feel about the prospect, but I'd guess there are other live recordings that might be released posthumously, as well as countless poems (I heard he has masses of unpublished poems).

Listening to You Want it Darker is a sad experience, not unlike listening to Blackstar, Bowie's last record. The Allmusic review, clearly written before Cohen's death, is interesting:
Given the subject matter addressed in the title and other tracks on You Want It Darker and Leonard Cohen's advanced age (82), it's tempting to hear this as a last album. In advance of its release, he told The New Yorker he was ready to die, but later walked back that comment. [source]
Obviously, Cohen knew he was near the end. The songs attest to that, just as Bowie's songs on Blackstar do. And then:
In song after song, Cohen delivers lyric juxtapositions that settle scores with God, past lovers, and himself, but almost always arrives at equanimity. He sounds like a spent Jeremiah alone in a cave conversing with God rather than the biblical figure transported to heaven in a fiery chariot. After coming to terms with the ghosts in his past and his acceptance of mortality, Cohen emits a resilient flicker of hope for total reconciliation in the shadows. A tender reprise of "Treaty" is adorned only by strings and his vocals as he expresses hope for detente: "I wish there was a treaty/between your love and mine." Amid the list of gripes, sins, and losses detailed on You Want It Darker, Cohen remains open to whatever earthly light offers even as his gaze shifts toward the eternal. He makes no compromises. These songs reveal that when all contradictions are nakedly exposed, all one can do is embrace them. Whether this is or isn't goodbye, You Want It Darker is one hell of a record. [source]
It is, indeed, a fantastic record and it really was, sadly, goodbye. I have to say thank you for delivering one final record. It cannot have been easy. Apparently, he had to sit in a medical chair, because of multiple spine fractures, but I have read that he enjoyed recording the album. It must have been uplifting to deliver a truly wonderful record as his last. So many artists fade into obscurity or double back on themselves, delivering tired pale versions of former glories. But, Leonard gave us something better, up there with his best, right at the end.

I'm not a religious man, but Cohen seemed to be, at least in his words. I've never understood the appeal, but it seemed to offer him something, and, even to my atheistic ears, his words were thoughtful, powerful, and emotional. If It Be Your Will, one of my favourite Cohen tunes, is almost a prayer, and yet I find it staggeringly powerful. If there is any good news in the timing of his death, it's that he died before Trump's pseudo-victory. Now, we can all say: Give me back George W. Bush. I have seen the future, baby: it is murder. Amen and amen to this, too, from The Future:

It's coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It's here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it's here they got the spiritual thirst
It's here the family's broken
And it's here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the USA

And finally, let us remember, from one of my favourite Cohen tracks:

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will
If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well

And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will

If it be your will

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