You Want It Darker
by Trevor Paxton
“I am ready to die.”
There may not be anyone who understands their own mortality more than Leonard Cohen. The statement, “I am ready to die” — given in the fantastic artist profile in October by The New Yorker — not only sums up Cohen’s most recent album, You Want It Darker, but almost his entire life. Since the day Cohen began creating art, he has always acknowledged the possibility of his impending fate, usually through the lens of faith and religion; his lyrics and poems have always acted as a camera obscura into the brilliance of one of music’s most intriguing songwriters.
On the album, Cohen centers his lyrics around themes of God, religion, and death; the latter hanging like a loom over each track. At times, Cohen sounds almost scornful of his faith — “A million candles burning for the love that never came / You want it darker / We kill the flame,” he sings on the album’s opening and title track. But that tone quickly changes as the booming rasp of his baritone voice somberly repeats the words, “Hineni, hineni” – a Hebrew expression that literally translates to “Here I am” – and ending with, “I’m ready, my Lord.”
You Want It Darker is Cohen’s 14th studio release in a span of nearly five decades. Initially known as a poet and novelist, his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, served as the critically-acclaimed debut of yet another outlet of creative expression for the multifaceted artist. Featuring songs like “Suzanne” and “Sisters of Mercy,” Cohen established from the very start that his lyrical voice was not aimed at the masses. While witty and sarcastic at times, the words in Cohen’s songs have always remained in an elevated state. These were not simply lyrics; these were words that held a purposeful nonchalance, words that often feigned commonality only to better serve as vessels for Cohen’s poetic devices.
The same holds true for You Want It Darker. While obsessed with the afterlife and in a constant state of reflection, Cohen still manages to bring out his signature snark. “They oughta give my heart a medal / For letting go of you,” he sings over a peaceful waltz before finishing, “When I turned my back on the devil / Turned my back on the angel, too.”
Musically, You Want It Darker is restrained. Emotive strings sit nestled beneath warm choral arrangements, accompanied by sparse piano melodies. Singular violin phrases cry out over driving drums and muted organs. But the remarkable part of each song is that throughout the polyphony of sounds found throughout the album — there’s even some light flamenco guitar on “Traveling Light” — all of it sounds coherent, unified through Cohen’s vocals.
It’s no surprise that You Want It Darker sounds so intimate. Due to physical limitations and mobility restraints after years of constant touring, Cohen’s sons, Adam and Patrick, helped him record the entire album was recorded in the living room of his home in Los Angeles. "At times I was very worried about his health, and the only thing that buoyed his spirits was the work itself," said Adam in a November interview with Rolling Stone. “And given the incredible and acute discomfort he was suffering from in his largely immobilized state, [creating this album] was a great distraction.”
You Want It Darker is not a casual invitation into the final moments of the revered songwriter’s life, but a plea to stay, to take up residence, and to fully explore the intricacies of each and every track. While the lyrical themes throughout the album may be similar, it is the constant — if subtle — variance between each track that begs you to listen deeper, time and time again.
This is perhaps most notable on the album’s final track, featuring a lush string arrangement and reprise of “Treaty.” On the track, Cohen’s tone changes from apologetically somber to resigned, with Cohen finally accepting a sort of peace in the fate he’s been staving off for the entirety of the album’s 36 minutes. “I wish there was a treaty we could sign / It’s over now, the water and the wine / We were broken then, but now we’re borderline,” he sings, reminiscing, before repeating, “I wish there was a treaty / Between your love and mine.”
You Want It Darker may be the swan song of Cohen’s storied career, but it is more than just that. It is relentless in its reverie. It is inquisitive. It is hyper self-aware. It is, at times, oddly satisfied in its own demise. But above all, it is mortal — and serves as a beautiful reminder of our own fragility.
Song You Need To Hear: "Treaty"