Leonard Cohen’s 'You Want It Darker': Still a Whisperer, Still a Winner

The Canadian minstrel still sometimes goes a bit heavy on the ennui, but his new album shows he remains a master of the spirit and the flesh.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen gestures during a tribute in Gijon, Spain, Oct. 19, 2014.
Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen gestures during a tribute in Gijon, Spain, Oct. 19, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

Since its release at the end of last week, “You Want It Darker,” Leonard Cohen’s new album, has been praised by music critics all over the world. At a time when albums from other older icons are harshly criticized or received with a yawn, Cohen’s new material wrings out the superlatives.

The halo above Cohen has only grown brighter. Or to be more precise, borrowing from one of his most famous phrases, if there is a crack in Cohen’s halo, it’s a good crack that lets his great light out.

Before I listened to his new album, the collective genuflecting made me want to speak with a more reserved voice that reflects my attitude toward the singer. Cohen has never been my rabbi. His songs have far from captured my soul. His only album that stirs a sense of wonder in me is his first effort, “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” An eternal masterpiece.

For me, Cohen’s other albums, even the highly praised early ones, always contained a dose of dullness, even if under the static silence whispered a deep and enchanting movement of melody, lyrics and sound.

At his best, Cohen is much more than a charismatic reciter of deep texts, but musically he’s not in the same league as other ‘60s greats. So the urge to stick a pin in Cohen’s halo was illuminated in a petty light when I began listening to the new album and heard his whispering voice.

The association this time was literary-cinematic. Cohen sounded like an Ent, the tree-like giants from “The Lord of the Rings.” The Ents are the oldest creatures in Tolkien’s mythology and their movements are very slow. But their huge steps are impossible to stop.

So from a musical perspective, is the new album a dull Ent march? Not at all. Hallelujah, you might say. The album has pockets of ennui, and it lacks the hypnotizing combination of silence and movement in his greatest songs. But “You Want It Darker” is a winner.

Leonard Cohen, right, in the '70s. Credit: Malka Marom

It turns out the word “darker” really is appropriate. This is an album soaked with death on the verge of obsession and beyond. But at the same time, it has something lighter in the sense of its easy movements.

This is music of separation; Cohen has about 37 ways to get this message across. And though it moves at his characteristic crawl, it rarely slogs on.

The steps are very slow but light and creative. Cohen is a simple and wise lyricist. His son Adam Cohen is a simple and smart arranger. Together they are enlightened enough to put the small harmonic and rhythmic turns in strategic places.

“Only one of us was real” is followed by a harsh change of tone in “Treaty,” and then the words “and that was me.” And there’s the refreshing textual musical conclusion at the end of every verse in “On the Level.” And listen to Cohen’s voice break but with a smile, not a wail when he sings “Oh no no” in the wonderful “Leaving the Table.”

In one of the great lines in that song, Cohen sings “I don’t need a lover / The wretched beast is tamed.” Clear and sharp. He’s too old for sexual desire. It no longer controls him. It’s a big change from the past.

After all, Cohen is the poet of the spirit and the flesh. He doesn’t distinguish between the two great urges. For some listeners this combination is sometimes uncomfortable, but most listeners are captivated by it. In the new album, both of these desires are extinguished, both monsters are domesticated.

“Sounded like the truth .... But it’s not the truth today,” Cohen sings in “It Seemed the Better Way.” The search for truth that has guided him his entire life has reached its end with the intimate closeness of death. What sounds like the truth is not the truth, and maybe the truth is that it’s impossible to discover the truth.

Either way, the disappearance of the two desires makes his life’s journey easier. You can feel it in the thin smile on Cohen’s lips in most of the songs.

So ”You Want It Darker” is a good album. Cohen’s devoted fans will certainly be excited by it and will change the “good” to “great.”

I stopped before that point. In one of the songs, Cohen sings “I try but I just don’t get high with you,” and his musical limitations, even when he’s in fine form, make this verse reflect a major aspect of my take on Cohen.

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