ALBUM: You Want it Darker
ARTIST: Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934 – November 7, 2016)
Album release date: October 21, 2016
“In Leonard’s presence I always felt alert as though I had joined a hunter on the trail. No one else I knew took so much license in speaking the truth.” – Ruth Wisse, college classmate
A Graceful Moment
“I was a specialist in being a victim – of thinking there was something else I needed to be happy. We all suffer from this sense of something undone, unfinished, unfelt. But I’ve become interested in surrender, in letting go of the things I used to grasp after.” So said Leonard Cohen in an interview I watched from the early 2000s. He was elderly then, with deep wrinkles on his face and a native tiredness around his eyes: but I was struck by the robust charisma he possessed even in his advanced years, a vibrancy which flashed intermittently from his eyes or his crooked, slow smile. “Nothing’s over till it’s over,” he continued, “but I find myself in a graceful moment.”
Leonard Cohen was born in 1934 in Montreal, into a modestly successful Jewish family. His mother was Russian and musical, and from a young age Cohen relished singing songs with her, something she would instigate at family gatherings. His proclivity for poetry and the arts began burgeoning during his college career, and not long after graduation he published a book of poetry (The Spice Box of the Earth) that gained him footing within the minds of the Canadian people. After this he moved away to England, then to the isolated island of Hydra off the coast of Greece, where he plunged enthusiastically into an existence defined by flurries of creative writing and sensual exploits.
“I always always disciplined in regard to my work… but in the wider sense of life, [I was not as orderly],” Cohen said many years later, when asked about this early period of his life. “I took [acid trip after acid trip], sitting on my terrace in Greece, waiting to see God. Generally I just ended up with a bad hangover…The interior sense I had was of deep disorder. I had gone overboard. I was at loose ends and I needed some kind of form.”
It wasn’t until many years on, after a hugely successful career in music and recording peppered with spiritual yearning, that Leonard Cohen found the simplicity and quietude he’d been searching for, to some degree. In 1994, Cohen entered a Buddhist monastery outside of Los Angeles, and remained there for over five years living the austere and penitential life of the monks (he himself became a Buddhist monk in 1996). Until the day he died, Cohen considered himself a practicing Jew; but he was decidedly catholic in his taste for religion, exploring many different traditions with varying degrees of commitment. Though he eventually left the monastery – upon coming to the conclusion that he didn’t have the religious aptitude necessary for the lifestyle – he had nonetheless gained a new perspective of surrender and acceptance, a certain joyful continence, that had evaded him in his earlier years.
One can’t experience honest surrender and acceptance unless death has been embraced as a reality. While it’s popular to say that art imitates life, one could say with equal honesty that art imitates death. Cohen not only recognized this stark fact, he embraced it, buoyed by confidence granted through his devotion to the transcendent. He understood that in the end, it came down to just him standing before his God – that the ultimate mystery of reality boils down to “being-with”. His last record, You Want it Darker, expresses with startling immediacy and prose the proximity of death: in particular, his own.
Darkness and Light
Not being familiar with Cohen beyond having heard Suzanne and Hallelujah, I wasn’t sure what to expect as I pushed play: I definitely wasn’t ready for the deluge of tears that started flowing, unchecked, almost immediately upon hearing the sound of his impossibly deep, weathered voice. I think the reason I was so moved had to do with the fact that I’d spent over three hours beforehand watching interviews of Cohen, and had felt the magnetism and sensitivity of his person. There was in him a coexistence of tenderness and masculinity that, distinct from the robust sexuality evident in his writing, bespoke of protection and fatherliness: particularly in his later years, his mien was one of long-suffering peacefulness.
Hineni, Hineni, he murmurs on the opening track: an ancient, urgent cry of worship expressing a readiness to move in the service of God. The song is foreboding in tone, and quietly distressed: “…Magnified, sanctified, be Thy holy Name; vilified, crucified, in the human frame. A million candles burning for the help that never came: you want it darker, we kill the flame,” Cohen sings, giving flesh (take that hypostatically, if you wish) to the primordial fear that perhaps God is not who He says he is (“My God, My God, why have You abandoned Me?”), whilst simultaneously admitting the utter dependency of the soul on its Creator. The tone is set from the opening track, and carries through without relent.
Holy The Tortuous Heart // Emptied & Sealed for Courts Above
Throughout the album, Cohen addresses himself, past lovers, and society: but his main focus is God, whom he addresses with great candor and directness. At times it sounds as though he’s threatening God with disbelief, much like the poet Rilke (“What will you do, God, when I die? You lose your meaning, losing me”): though he was a disciple of surrender, nonetheless the human hunger for assurance (and freedom from pain) remained with Leonard Cohen, as is clear in his song Treaty. “I wish there was a treaty we could sign… I’m tired and I’m angry all the time. I wish there was as treaty between your love and mine.” The tune is bluesy, with soft piano and pulsing strings, and gives way into On the Level, which is the grooviest track on the album. But even here – despite the drums being in the pocket, the background vocals soulful, and the meter upbeat – a soberness prevails, as this is a song about retrospective bitterness borne from turning down an earthly good (a temptation) for a higher good.
The following song, Leaving the Table, is stark; but it expresses an evolution of thought in regard to the entrapment of the flesh. “I don’t need a lover, no, no, no; the wretched beast is tame. I don’t need a lover, so blow out the flame.” Cohen, though wildly popular through the years with women, was uncomfortable with being considered a ladies’ man – “The reputation as a ladies man is very inaccurate,” he expressed in an interview, “Nobody’s a real ‘ladies man’ or a ‘love-ganster’, because nobody has mastered the mysteries of the heart. Those descriptions are easy, they’re a joke. The reputation was completely undeserved, and I don’t think anybody feels really confident in that realm…while I was drawn to intense experiences, I was never truly able to enjoy them. And now I find all I truly desire is companionship.” This pure yearning after simple union with God is one of the most distinct colors of this album: while there are vestigial grumblings and insecurities, there is no hint of lust here.
Thematically, the album presents itself as being Cohen’s final artistic breath on this side of heaven: though there are love songs interspersed throughout (my favorite being If I Didn’t Have Your Love, which made me cry the hardest), every song could be seen through the lens of a soul preparing to meet its maker.
I feel like I’m talking in circles, now: how many ways can I say that this is a beautiful collection of songs about death, songs that are laden with loss and threaded through with an eternal sense of presence, written by a man who was more than ready to die, and made more brilliant because of that? As Chesterton said, “Everything seems brightest right before it bursts.”
Just go listen. Without doing anything else.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him…