Monday, October 17th, 2016

Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

Leonard Cohen (and a cat) would like to welcome you to Veterans’ Monday…


Olivia Rafferty: “I’m ready my Lord,” Cohen croaks, amidst a glowing organ and solemn choir. This upcoming record has been quite explicitly set up to be his last, it would seem. Not that 2016 could take any more loss of great musical minds. But if Bowie was anything to go by, there’s a power and satisfaction taken through writing what you know will be your last song and testament. This work seems to be a dark chuckle and a spit towards the deity he’s meant to fall into the hands of, when his time comes.

Anthony Easton: Three things I think are important about this track: 1. That for how smart and how inclusive he has been about religion, and about his own Jewish heritage, he has rarely been orthodox. Think about how he uses the kabbalah in his novel Beautiful Losers, or how he views G-d in works as diverse as “Hallelujah” (if we can strip the false reverence that has stuck to it over the years and remember its sexuality) or “Anthem.” This song, with its traditional cantor lead chant “Hineni, hineni,” and its claim “But it’s written in the scriptures/And it’s not some idle claim” is the least heterodox claim to religion he might have offered. It seems to be the end of a lifetime conversation with God. Literally, I am ready, take me God. 2. In this capacity, Cohen has always negotiated death. But these negotiations always seemed performative — as much about the idea of dying as the actual act. Listening to him sing something like “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” with it’s discussion of how there is nothing left of the body; the suicide is explicit, but the rehearsal to a kind of winking nihilism also exists. It’s an ironic way of negating what could be real feelings and he’s smart enough to know that feelings and actions are modelled differently. This one seems different. What was a push-me-pull-me negotiation between equals is now a capitulation to biological reality. 3. I think one of the things that is underrated in these negotiations is how funny he is. Even in his darkest times, there is a gag line. This ability to know his theology, to work with these depths of feelings, and then to write something as funny as “I struggled with some demons/they were middle-class and tame”: that is masterful range.   

Thomas Inskeep: I’ve not paid much attention to Cohen of recent vintage — I’m chiefly an I’m Your Man fan — but wow, this is something. The sparest of keyboards and organ from Patrick Leonard (who produced Cohen’s last studio album) and Neil Larsen, production from Cohen’s son Adam, and most significantly, Montreal’s Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir adding vocals to seriously haunting effect, all to accompany Cohen’s heavily religious lyrics, borrowing from both Christian and Jewish traditions. Adam Cohen makes a wise decision keeping the production so minimal, serving to spotlight his father’s seductive, gravelly vocal delivery and these superheavy lyrics. This isn’t catchy exactly, but once you’ve heard it, “You Want It Darker” won’t leave your head for some time.  

Claire Biddles: It’s easy to situate the work of Leonard Cohen in religion. But whereas other artists whose work could be described as hymn-like are at the service of a god, or god-like figure, Leonard delivers pure scripture. He seems to have lived a hundred lifetimes, walked across a hundred deserts — he embodies infinite experience. In “You Want It Darker” he confesses his weakness and prepares for deliverance, but he sounds like he’s already speaking from celestial heights. The choral voices swarm around his. He is a higher power.

John Seroff: Time has been deceptively kind to Leonard Cohen’s once-nasal, now-gruff incantatory voice; the lightning keen of the late sixties and seventies has given way to a more profound, if more distant thunder. Lyrically, his spirituals remain as inscrutable as the man; Cohen’s recent hokey pokey with the grim reaper is neatly reflected in “Darker’s” koans on the nature of cruel fate, the powerlessness of men and an uncaring god. All this is offered as a gothic and monastic lullaby, without passion or sadness but as a declaration of presence amongst the unknowable. The listener leans into the whisper of each enunciated turn of phrase; the heartbeat of bassline is constant but wary; the choir of voices is far off and fading. It is the sound of a man singing his own kaddish and succeeding.

Tim de Reuse: Cohen’s poetry is sometimes potent, if not world-changing (“I struggled with some demons/they were middle-class and tame” comes across as alternately clever and dull every time I listen to it), and his big-cat-purring is technically impressive. What disappoints, though, is how static the whole arrangement is; Cohen’s swinging rumble never leads into anything, never excites, just rolls in circles on the floor squashing the chorus in the background. Little of the brooding religious imagery stands to make much of an impact mired in such thick, dreary delivery.

Jonathan Bradley: For a performer whose greatest feature is his twilit vocal, the most striking aspects of “You Want It Darker” are the voices that do not belong to Leonard Cohen: the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir’s shadowy accompaniment and a chiaroscuro wail from cantor Gideon Zelermyer. There’s plenty of texture to admire here — even if one of these textures is a low-end that suggests “Living On a Prayer” in Abaddon — but the song’s theme is so unsubtle and relentless it permits no room for response. (Yes, death is unsubtle and unyielding; life is when we escape that truth.) I hope time won’t quickly turn these meditations poignant, as Blackstar did for Bowie: for now they just hang there.

Cassy Gress: Ominous in a premium cable/graphic novel sort of way, and about a minute too long.

Brad Shoup: It has that HBO-drama feel: it wipes its portent — that gothic gospel — all over the walls. But he is a fine actor — dripping on the first lyrical pass, resigned on the second — and the religious trappings are worn thickly, the walking bassline and hallowed vibe suggest a genteel transformation of “Thriller.”

Alfred Soto: Since 1988 and probably earlier I’ve hoped in a sense that Cohen’s recording his last album so that my fellow critics can stop using a synonym of “autumnal.” Hint: “I’m ready, my lord” and references to Scripture are little more than favorite if not received tropes adapted by a singer-songwriter of preternatural morbidity — a songwriter who kills the flame so he can put his Dracula fingers on the hot things attracted to his preternatural morbidity (no wonder Depeche Mode claim him as an influence). “You Want It Darker” has subtle organ washes and a choir, the sorts of things you’d hear in his church of the poisoned mind.

Megan Harrington: These are ideas Cohen has toyed with, if not for his entire career then for the last thirty years. A fretful side of me thinks that in this particular year, it’s bone-chilling to hear him beckon “you want it darker?” The darkness is so profound it’s depthless. I want it lighter, bring back the match. But my reckless side wins — he’s 82, it’s nearly Halloween, let’s dance in the boneyard. 

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One Response to “Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker”

  1. Found this New Yorker piece pretty revealing: