BY PARKER KLYN
Coming into this year, I only knew Leonard Cohen as the man who originally wrote and performed the classic tearjerker “Hallelujah,” popularized by Jeff Buckley.
But when I saw him headlining my favorite music websites- who were in equal parts praising the singles leading up to this year’s “You Want It Darker” and criticizing Cohen for saying “I’m ready to die”- I knew that this must’ve been a man of massive influence.
Cohen passed away last week at the age of 82 after a five decade-spanning career as a singer, songwriter, and poet.
Early in his life, he wrote stunning songs like the wishful “Suzanne” and the pained, passionate “So Long, Marianne.”
Cohen is one of the rare pop artists to successfully translate poetry into song; he was never a very talented singer, but his subtle musical arrangements and likable, earnest voice turned his early work into a folk fan’s dream.
It’s easy to classify Cohen’s music as folk, but this isn’t the sound of a rambling drifter who makes art to pass the time – it’s the sound of a perfectionist auteur.
Cohen famously and legendarily banged his head against the floor of his hotel room when trying to translate his poetry into song.
It’s clear that music this passionate comes from a man with immensely high standards, in sharp contrast to his reported lack of self-esteem.
In late October, just a few weeks before his death, Cohen released his final album, “You Want It Darker”. When I first heard it, I appreciated most of the arrangements, but Cohen’s formerly sweet voice, after years of performance, had become impossibly low and gravelly.
But now, after the realization that he wrote this album in the face of death, You Want It Darker is a stunning statement on mortality and the fragility and difficulty of life and growing old.
The album’s title track is an examination of Cohen’s struggles with religion and faith. Born Jewish, he chants hineni repetitively on the song: “Hineni, hineni / I’m ready, my Lord.”
His use of the phrase “You want it darker” is compelling; is it accusatory, prescriptive or interrogative? Is he admonishing God for allowing all the strife and hardship in the world? Or is he bringing an optimist to his level, reminding him that in the real world, nothing is as good as it seems?
Later, “On The Level” examines how people give up both good and bad to escape a toxic relationship: “When I walked away from you / I turned my back on the devil / Turned my back on the angel, too.”
Even though the song is explicitly about a love, it could be about life as well. He gives up everything joyous and everything terrible when he dies.
Love is a surprisingly recurring theme on “You Want It Darker”, although in hindsight, Cohen always had a knack for the romantic.
It’s just interesting to see him explore love so deeply as an octogenarian who is about to die.
“If I Didn’t Have Your Love” is a loving ballad about how terrible the world would be without love.
Backed by soft guitar and heavenly organ, the song’s tone matches the mood of the lyrics.
Cohen has always been great at matching his music to fit his words, and You Want It Darker is no different.
Spanish guitar accompanies the funeral march of “Traveling Light,” while Sharon Robinson’s backing vocals on “On The Level” match the back-and-forth of a relationship on the verge of collapse.
Piano, guitar and light percussion have always been hallmarks of Cohen’s music. They rarely experiment, but they never fail to evoke an emotional response.
You Want It Darker’s best song (and in my opinion one of the very best songs of this year) is “Treaty,” a display of how spirituality can falter in the face of death. “I’ve seen you change water into wine / I’ve seen you change it back into water,” Cohen sighs.
When he was once in awe of God’s love, he has now begun to question it: “I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.”
The album closes with a reprise of “Treaty”, but Cohen only sings one instance of the song’s chorus.
It somehow takes a different tone. Here, it seems Cohen is singing to his listeners. Or perhaps to Marianne Ihlen, his longtime love?
That’s the beauty of Cohen and his art; it’s open to interpretation without being obtuse.
Earlier this year, many people said that David Bowie’s Blackstar was the pinnacle of life-concluding albums.
After hearing “You Want It Darker,” I think Cohen went out stronger, more moving and more powerful than any artist in music history.