I write this review on the evening of the death of 82-year-old Leonard Cohen, the Canadian-born poet, songwriter, singer, and bard of gloom and doom. His hauntingly personal lyrics explored life and death's big themes, qualifying him as a cult artist. Little could I have known when I suggested reviewing You Want It Darker that this would be his last recording, his death coming less than three weeks after its release. Cohen's career stretched well over 50 years, with his enigmatic 1984 song “Hallelujah”—which begins, “I’ve heard there was a secret chord/That David played, and it pleased the Lord”—becoming an anthem recorded by a pantheon of artists.
Cohen's final studio album feels like a sort of piously crafted last testament. As the liner notes reveal, it is a project marked by his own pain and personal illness that would not have been completed but for the loving production work of his son, Adam.
The album’s title song signals the tracks to come. Its religious tones, “If you are the dealer/I’m out of the game/If you are the healer/I’m broken and lame” range from derision to rapture. Three times, as the choir drops out, Cohen chants, “Hineni Hineni/I’m ready, my Lord”—a Hebrew cry of devotion, the reply of a ready worshiper who hears a calling from God. The first line of the second verse continues in this vein: “Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name,” a virtual word-for-word translation of the praise hymn to God that appears throughout Jewish liturgy.
Cohen goes to great lengths to set his lyrics to Jewish music, even hiring an all-male choir from the Montreal synagogue where he was raised to provide background to several tracks. His gravelly, ravaged, voice—more harsh in the end than that of Bob Dylan or Tom Waits—dominates the recording. Like an Old Testament prophet descending the mountaintop, he wedges proclamations between eschaton and atonement. And like a modern psalmist, he calls out to God, asking why bad things happen to good people and why we seemingly need to descend to the darkest depths before God offers redemption. But his assessments are the informed conclusions of a lifetime of existential inquiry.
Cohen’s new album reminds us of his life’s pilgrimage. On “Treaty,” he sings “I’m angry and tired all the time.” An ode to Ecclesiastes, the record provides a soundtrack to Cohen’s exit, leaving peripatetic advice for those of us left behind. (Columbia)