Leonard Cohen’s YOU WANT IT DARKER: Three Years Later

from Issue 6

Leonard Cohen’s YOU WANT IT DARKER: Three Years Later

ou want it darker/We kill the flame.” These were some of the last words that the world would hear from Leonard Cohen before he passed away nearly three years ago. Before that, however, he embraced his death with one final album.

Three years ago today, on 21 October 2016, Columbia Records released the “Hallelujah” writer’s final album, You Want It Darker. The nine-track, thirty-six-minute record explores Cohen’s feelings about his imminent death and maybe what he wanted to say to his loved ones. The first and title track is an acceptance of his fate. The refrain contains the Hebrew word “Hineni,” which means, “Here I am.” It won him a Grammy for Best Rock Performance in January of 2018.

The next song, “Treaty,” is a farewell of regrets: “I wish there was a treaty/Between your love and mine.” “On the Level” is another farewell, this time to someone he struggled leaving. “Leaving the Table” expounds upon the analogy introduced in the first song: “If you are the dealer/I’m out of the game.” He sings about giving up, making this track especially sad. To close out the first side, Cohen sings “If I Didn’t Have Your Love,” reminding his loved one of just how much they mean to him, which turns out to be the world.

Side two opens with the beat-oriented “Traveling Light,” the pilgrimage of which could be the end of Cohen’s life or an actual pilgrimage to the bar where he “used to play/One mean guitar.” This line is especially important because before and during the sessions for this album, he suffered injuries that made him immobile—he sang many of the lyrics in a medical chair, as indicated in the liner notes. The next song, “It Seemed the Better Way,” may be a reflection on some sermon he heard that touched him but could not fully get to him: “But now it’s much too late/To turn the other cheek.” “Steer Your Way,” a folksy, urgent piece, is Cohen’s comment on the world as it is. The Altar and the Mall, the fables, the Truth, the cheap labor—he warns the listener to steer his way past all these things. The final and, perhaps, most emotional, track is a reprise of the last verse of “Treaty,” this time, however, using only a string quartet and Cohen, making the final seconds all the more poignant and, for me as a listener, almost evoking tears three years after the fact.

Unfortunately, nineteen days after You Want It Darker was released, on 7 November 2016, Leonard Cohen passed away in his sleep, aged eighty-two. His funeral was three days later, and many celebrities mourned his loss. You Want It Darker topped the weekly charts in fourteen countries, including Canada, his home country. The album was his last until, on 20 September 2019, Thanks for the Dance, a collection of outtakes from the You Want It Darker sessions, was announced.

Overall, the album is a depressing, yet hopeful one, full of poignancy and meditation. It is a more acoustic, bluesy album than ones typically released in 2016, and anyone with a fear of the future should listen to the wisdom of Leonard Cohen. Hallelujah; hineni. All hail a legend.