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“I’m ready my lord,” crackles Leonard Cohen on the title track to You Want it Darker (available Oct. 21), his trademark baritone mining the depths of his range, his lyrics the depths of his soul. The spectre of death looms large over Cohen’s 14th album, and nowhere is this more apparent than here, from the ominous chants of Montreal’s Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir to Cohen’s own lyrical acceptance of his mortal limitations.
“I am ready to die,” he confessed in a recent New Yorker profile, Cohen never being the type of man to equivocate on such matters. It’s that signature straightforward, everyman approach to dealing with life’s biggest questions — love, death and faith, sometimes all at the same time — that is on full display on You Want it Darker, one of the most inspired and poignant albums of his venerated career. As the ailing 82-year-old accepts that, despite his best efforts, some questions will never be answered, we get to witness Cohen at his most vulnerable and vibrant.
Throughout the nine songs on You Want it Darker, which was produced by his son, Adam Cohen, and composed with longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard, Cohen reflects on the same big questions to which he’s devoted his life, but with the advantage of someone who can sense the end: “I’m travelling light, it’s au revoir, my once so bright, my fallen star,” he sings on “Travelling Light,” a song that finds the joy in letting go.
The arrangements are sparing but rich, from the elegant coos of a choir to haunting string progressions, or sometimes just a lonely guitar or electric piano with a barely there drumbeat. It’s all meant to service Cohen’s lyrics and delivery, his voice rolling in like a distant thunder, deeper, both physically and spiritually, than ever before.
And yet, for all the darkness that permeates the album, there is absolutely no sense of dread. Negativity ruptures under Cohen’s hope, his humour, his elation and his genuine curiosity. After all, there is a crack in everything, as Cohen would say. Even in darkness — it’s how the light gets in.
The You Want it Darker stream has now expired. Read a track-by-track guide below.
'You Want it Darker'
This is a wide-ranging exploration of the religious mind, from those who use it to justify war — “Didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim” — to Cohen himself, who invokes God in the chorus using a traditional utterance from the Torah, “hineni, hineni,” translated from Hebrew to “here I am.” Cohen finishes the thought with a declaration, “I’m ready my lord,” punctuated by chants from Montreal’s Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir, the very synagogue of Cohen’s youth, used here to reflect on the end.
A signature Cohen sound, mixing both the sacred and the profane over a melody that is instantly recognizable as his: simple yet undeniably unforgettable. "Treaty" took Cohen seven years to complete. Subdued strings accompany Cohen as he reflects on what could either be a long lost love or the search for an epiphany. With Cohen, who mixes romantic expressions with religious imagery throughout, it’s likely both. “I’ve seen you change the water into wine, I’ve seen you change it back to water, too,” he sings before tying that with the image of being at the dinner table. In another moment, we witness the rare occasion where his voice almost breaks, singing, “You were my ground, my safe and sound,” the vulnerability on full display as he lays the groundwork for an eventual redemption.
'On the Level'
On this track, co-written with longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson, Cohen deals with his lifelong reputation of being a ladies’ man, and how it’s tough to break with character after all these years. “I was fighting with temptation, but I didn’t want to win. A man like me don’t like to see temptation caving in.”
'Leaving the Table'
“I'm leaving the table, I'm out of the game,” Cohen declares at the beginning of this song over a nylon string guitar reminiscent of his '60s and '70s output. A languid, smoky ballad, it deals with one of the most dominant themes on the album: not just letting go, but blissfully doing so after a life of living to the fullest. “The wretched beast is tamed,” he sings. “I don’t need a lover, so blow out the flame.”
'If I Didn't Have Your Love'
The organ instantly lends this classic-sounding Cohen love song a celestial feeling, another instance of him blurring the lines between romance and religion. It’s a song of limitless gratitude, as Cohen, essentially, tells a lover that nothing on this Earth would matter “if I didn't have your love to make it real.”
Cohen plays with a double entendre around the idea of travelling light, whether it’s a traveller who is packing light, as Cohen would have during his expat years, or an actual travelling ray of light. “I’m travelling light, it’s au revoir," he sings. "My once so bright, my fallen star." Appropriately, Cohen alludes to his days on the Greek island of Hydra, as the song features both a traditional Greek instrument in the bouzouki, as well as a vocal contribution by Greek singer-songwriter Athena Andreadis.
'It Seemed Better that Way'
Another appearance by the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir haunts this heavily spiritual song, the incandescent choral arrangement leading to a mournful violin melody. It’s the only song on the album where Cohen seems to show any doubt, grappling with the issues of faith and belief and looking for a place of comfort. “Sounded like the truth, but it’s not the truth today,” he sings, his voice shaking with trepidation.
'Steer Your Way'
One of the strongest songs is saved for the end, as Cohen urges for courage in the face of darkness. Alison Krauss joins in on ethereal background vocals with Dana Glover, who also sang on Cohen’s last two albums. “Steer your heart past the truth you believed in yesterday,” he sings, addressing both the listener and himself. “Steer your way through the pain that is far more real than you.”
A gorgeous composition of "Treaty” done with string quartet, but ultimately giving Cohen the final word. “This track is a reprise in the classical sense,” says Adam Cohen in a press note. “In this case, a string quartet reiteration of the melody and theme of ‘Treaty’ with a salutation at the end spoken by [Leonard Cohen].”
You Want it Darker is available Oct. 22. Purchase it on iTunes.
Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG