Nov. 10, exactly 20 days after the release of his latest album, “You Want It Darker”, Leonard Cohen passed away at 82. His death signifies the loss of a brilliantly seasoned songwriter and musician, but Cohen did not die without leaving a parting gift for his admirers.
“You Want It Darker” is as much a goodbye as it is a welcoming of the afterlife; Cohen’s timely release of an album this somber could be interpreted as a warning of his passing, but his peaceful tone instead conveys a soulful surrender.
The album’s titular track begins with a dirge-like chorus, but a thumping bass line quickly undercuts the sadness with Cohen’s signature groove. The electric currents of the guitar and keyboard weave in and out of the album’s track list, mixing nonchalantly with the more exotic instruments Cohen includes. He balances his affinity for mixing mediums by tethering songs together with his grounding voice.
Vocal arrangements color nearly every song on the album, expressing all of the notes that lie within Cohen’s vision yet outside his own vocal range. “On the Level” entrusts the talents of female background singers to propel Cohen’s musical intent; nonetheless, his baritone voice carries all of the song’s passion in its weathered rumble.
Alison Krauss and Dana Glover lend their angelic harmonies to “Steer Your Way,” recalling the album’s plangent laments and empowering themes simultaneously. Though the voices that accompany him throughout the work possess technical perfection, Cohen’s growling monotone never fails to steal the attention of every listener.
His whispered rasp is the perfect vehicle for the poetic urgency of his lyrics, drawing attention to his subject matter rather than merely celebrating his talent. Songs like “Treaty” evidence his intense care for the holistic piece rather than his function as its centerpiece. His naked lyrics of remorseful love tap into the empathy of audiences directly instead of sacrificing their potency to riffs or vocalizations.
A variety of instruments weave in and out of the track list, exhibiting Cohen’s gift for arranging music that beautifully accentuates his message. “Traveling Light” houses a wide range of instrumental textures but blends them tastefully to create a unified tone. It takes a musical genius to combine the rustic tune of a Greek bouzouki with the electric timbres of bass guitar and keyboard, but Cohen’s finished product leaves no room for doubt.
David Bowie left his mourners with “Black Star,” revealing only posthumously the cancer he suffered from in secret. Only after Bowie passed away did the implicit messages within “Black Star” begin to resonate. In the same fashion, Leonard Cohen’s final release expresses his prescient sense of his own impending death. “Leaving the Table” hinted at his readiness to move on, but veiled it in the metaphors characteristic of his writing style.
As his voice scrapes the bottom of the scale, his lyrics reach far higher than the material world. Penning “Hallelujah” many years ago, Cohen showed us the gripping appeal of his transcendental songwriting. On “You Want It Darker,”the spiritual overtones he previously employed come to the foreground. Leonard Cohen is now “Travelling Light” in more ways than one, but his final album doesn’t neglect the earthly wishes and regrets he left behind.
“Treaty” is given a reprise, which acts as the finale; his regrets of unresolved relationships are captured on this song in particular, allowing us to eulogize him with the feelings he left behind.
The record is concluded with earnest regret in its final verse.
“I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.”
Leonard Cohen’s life echoes the pain all of us know from time to time; his musical interpretation of that pain, though, is a lasting remedy for those who live on.