With You Want It Darker, his 14th and final album, Canadian music icon Leonard Cohen capped an incredible, decades-long career in music and the arts. In the process, he explored themes of relationships, illness and dying with potent honesty, and with his trademark humour and poetic lyrics.
The album is one of 10 on this year's Polaris Music Prize short list. The winner will be announced Sept. 18, and in the lead-up, CBC Music is offering five things about each finalist. Here are five things about Cohen's You Want it Darker.
1. The songs were written over many years
Cohen was notorious for obsessing over the tiniest details of each song, and You Want it Darker was no exception. Most were written over a few years, but some, including "Treaty" — which features the lyric "They’re dancing in the street, it’s jubilee/ we sold ourselves for love but now we’re free" — dates back a decade. According to Rolling Stone, Cohen dictated songs into his phone, or jotted them down on a notepad he always kept in his jacket pocket.
"It comes, kind of, by dribbles and drops," Cohen said at an L.A. press conference, which was his final public interview. "Some people are graced with a flow. Some people are graced with something less than a flow. I'm one of those."
2. The album was produced by his son, Adam
Cohen began work on the album in early 2015 but had to stop when producer Patrick Leonard, who had worked on Cohen’s previous two albums, experienced what Cohen’s son Adam Cohen described as "very serious personal problems." Adam, also a singer-songwriter, picked up where he left off.
"It's increasingly rare for children to be so useful to their parents," Adam told Rolling Stone. "To be in such intimate circumstances for such a lengthy period of time with my father was filled with sweetness for me.
"I spoke to him at length, got his instructions before every session," he said. "Then I faithfully tried to serve what I understood his vision to be in the studio. He also had final say and veto power. If you listen to this record versus the other recent ones, it's a little bit more sparse and acoustic."
3. Because of Leonard’s deteriorating health, You Want it Darker was recorded in his living room
In his final years, Leonard experienced major physical health issues, including multiple fractures in his spine. As a result, You Want it Darker was recorded in the living room of his Los Angeles home, where he was able to focus in a way he hadn’t been able to before.
“In a certain sense, this particular predicament is filled with many fewer distractions than other times in my life and actually enables me to work with a little more concentration and continuity than when I had duties of making a living, being a husband, being a father,” Leonard told the New Yorker. “Those distractions are radically diminished at this point. The only thing that mitigates against full production is just the condition of my body.”
Adam brought in an orthopaedic chair designed for patients to spend long hours or even days; medical marijuana also played a role. But ultimately, it was the music that would bring Leonard back to his feet, despite the pain.
"At times I was very worried about his health, and the only thing that buoyed his spirits was the work itself," said Adam. "And given the incredible and acute discomfort he was suffering from in his largely immobilized state, [creating this album] was a great distraction."
4. The choral parts were done by the Montreal synagogue choir
Leading up to the recording of You Want it Darker, Leonard emailed Gideon Zelermyer, cantor of Montreal’s Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue — the synagogue that was part of the Cohen family for generations. In fact, both Leonard’s grandfather and great grandfather were presidents of the community.
"The email read, ‘Would you be interested in collaborating with me on my new album, I'm looking for the sound of the cantor and synagogue choir of my youth," recalled Zelermyer, who didn’t meet Cohen in person until shortly before his death. "I shouted things no cantor should, then responded with two things: ‘Hallelujah and I'm your man.'"
On the title track, Zelermyer can be heard chanting the Hebrew word, "Hineni," which translates to "Here I am." It is also part of the song's chorus. "I think it's quite remarkable for somebody to use a Hebrew word as a chorus to their first song for their new album," Zelermyer noted.
The choir recorded its parts at Hotel2Tango, and it also sings on “It Seemed the Better Way.”
5. Nearing the end of life, Leonard's trademark wry humour shines through
“I know there’s a spiritual aspect to everybody’s life, whether they want to cop to it or not,” the singer said in the New Yorker interview. “It’s there, you can feel it in people — there’s some recognition that there is a reality that they cannot penetrate but which influences their mood and activity. So that’s operating. That activity at certain points of your day or night insists on a certain kind of response. Sometimes it’s just like: ‘You are losing too much weight, Leonard. You’re dying, but you don’t have to cooperate enthusiastically with the process.’ Force yourself to have a sandwich.
“What I mean to say is that you hear the Bat Kol [the divine voice]. You hear this other deep reality singing to you all the time, and much of the time you can’t decipher it. Even when I was healthy, I was sensitive to the process. At this stage of the game, I hear it saying, ‘Leonard, just get on with the things you have to do.’ It’s very compassionate at this stage. More than at any time of my life, I no longer have that voice that says, ‘You’re f--king up.’ That’s a tremendous blessing, really.”
In the statement announcing his father's passing, Adam said Leonard thought the album was one of his best. "My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records," Adam wrote. "He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humor."
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