As 2016 draws close to its end, another musical magician offers a late-in-life contemplation of mortality, cloaked in a similar sense of finality and foreboding as David Bowie’s Blackstar. At 82, Leonard Cohen will hopefully be with us for many more years, but whatever his physical condition, his recent New Yorker profile confirms that he’s using his remaining time on Earth to focus on putting his worldly affairs in order as a means of spiritual housecleaning. The culmination of 50 years of moody, often melancholic music, You Want It Darker stands out as the musical equivalent thereof, a wry reckoning of a lifetime’s worth of damaged relationships, upheld vows, and broken promises from pop’s preeminent emotional accountant.
All of the singer-songwriter’s various thematic voices can be found here, in some form or another. There’s the worn-out lover, his salacious cravings tempered by age and exhaustion—“the wretched beast is tamed,” as he puts it on the waltz-time ballad “Leaving the Table.” There’s the high-toned mystic poet, his affection for religiously tinged inscrutability and shamanic invocations of darkness suffusing songs with a lingering sense of mystery. There’s the husky-voiced troubadour, complemented by a burbling troupe of female backup singers. And, finally, the adamant experimenter, combining his complex songwriting style with musical larks that oftentimes make serious subject matter sound silly or grotesque.
All of these are filtered through the latter-day persona of elder statesman Cohen, an artist who, despite being robbed of much of the original expressiveness of his famously leathery voice, is still capable of working in a wide range of emotional registers. He creaks and croaks through surprisingly spry songs like “On the Level,” managing a winking, spry version of decrepitude, one that belies how youthful he’s capable of sounding at times. In declaring himself a dusty relic on a last march toward eternity, Cohen sardonically sounds more alive than he has in years.
On You Want It Darker, Cohen trades out the stern, muted simplicity of his last couple of releases for a return to the baroque weirdness of his 1970s and ‘80s output. It was during that period that Cohen first opened up from a famously staid, solitary approach to recording to one built on experimentation, disguising him in one strange costume after another. The album’s opening track, “You Want It Darker,” thus builds off of an eerily intoned hymnal arrangement (courtesy of the Montreal synagogue Cohen attended as a child), adding a slithering bassline, a distant drum machine, and a mounting series of rasped pronouncements. The use of a greater variety of sounds and styles has a revivifying effect similar to 1973’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony, on which Cohen’s formerly sparse renditions of sinister coffeehouse folk were first expanded by more diverse instrumentation.
You Want It Darker doesn’t just boast a broad sonic palette, but the return of a broad-minded pop sensibility to his work after a sustained period of asceticism, with a precise lyrical platform granted manifold meanings through differing musical approaches, the songs bolstered by Eastern rhythms, full-bodied organ lines, and choral chants. This connects to a liturgical influence throughout, matched by a lyrical focus on the joys and limits of belief, strongly evinced on gospel-influenced works like “Treaty” and the title track, whose recurring cry of “Hineni”—“I am ready” in Hebrew—sets a resolute tone which persists throughout the remainder of the album.
Such expressions of settled conclusiveness, however, are at odds with the sly subtext of an album that acknowledges the impossibility of tying up all loose ends, a sentiment which jibes with Cohen’s career-long refusal to let things end on a tidy note. This sense of non-resolution is confirmed by the reappearance of “Treaty” as an album-capping string reprise, ending with a repetition of “I wish there was a treaty we could sign/Between your love and mine.” Reconciliation may be the thematic tie that binds these songs together, but they also make clear that the struggle isn’t over; bearing out this point, Cohen recently responded to concerns about his health with an assurance that fans shouldn’t worry, as he’s planning to live forever. You Want It Darker bears out this claim, as it’s a clear-eyed consideration of finitude that feels considerably less dark than much of Cohen’s previous material, and which never broaches the possibility of giving up or giving in.