Strange as it may sound I didn’t full investigate the rich musical discography of Leonard Cohen until I heard Waiting For a Miracle on 2000’s Wonder Boys soundtrack album. Taken from 1992’s The Future it entranced me with its musical mysteries and Cohen’s deep, deep vocal delivery. Little did I know that it would begin a 16 year (and ongoing) odyssey into the world of Mr. Cohen. Lyrically, I find Leonard Cohen to be unparalleled. Words or phrases that would seem simple on their own become complex thoughts when tied into other trains of thought. Others – as in Hallelujah – become an ode or lament to carnal desires. Sometimes, within the same song. Hell, sometimes within the same verse. Jeff Buckley may have delivered the definitive version vocally, but the words are Leonard’s. To be misunderstood for eternity it seems. Late 60’s to late 70’s Cohen had a higher vocal registry and was keyboard free. From the 80’s on Leonard Cohen could be found experimenting with keyboards and delivering modern hits such as First We Take Manhattan and Everybody Knows. After a decade away, Cohen returned in 2001 with 10 New Songs – a stunning statement of intent. You Want It Darker is Cohen’s 5th studio album since his return and his 3rd since 2012. It may also be his finest.
You Want It Darker was produced by Cohen’s son Adam and features the starkest embellishments since 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. Lyrically, it is bleak. Even by Mr. Cohen’s standards, these lyrics are bleak. He delivers his vocals in a defiant tone, at times angry or resigned. The voices of the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir of Montreal appear on several songs, to stunning effect. There is a deeper emotion at play than there has been on the last couple of Cohen albums – as brilliant as they were, I didn’t feel as overwhelmed emotionally as when I listen to the highlights from You Want It Darker. Truly, this is a career highlight in a career full of them.
You Want It Darker is the most menacing track on the album and the 1st single. A killer bass line holds the song down as Cohen growls lines “Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name / Vilified, crucified, in the human frame / A million candles burning for the love that never came / You want it darker / We kill the flame”. It is a deeply disturbing, ominous, and amazing song all at once. It culminates in the lines “Hineni, hineni / Hineni, hineni / I’m ready, my lord”. Hineni can be interpreted as “Here I am, send me”. When God called out to Moses from the burning bush, Moses replied, “Hineni!”. A study in contrasts, it is an instant classic. Leaving the Table features one of the saddest guitar licks ever on a Leonard Cohen song as he laments “I don’t need a lover, no, no / the wretched beast is tame / I don’t need a lover / so blow out the flame”. Minimal orchestration w/ that repeating guitar lick gives this song a distinctly 50’s feel. It is perfect. Traveling Light has a otherworldly feel to it due to the stunning female wordless vocals that open the proceedings and become a recurring refrain. Musically, it harkens back to the Gypsy inspired music of 1984’s Various Positions. Lyrically, Leonard appears to be moving on from a lover “I guess I’m just somebody who / Has given up on the me and you / I’m not alone, I’ve met a few / Traveling light like we used to do”. It Seemed the Better Way is anchored by an emotive violin refrain that evokes a reaction each time it makes its appearance. Vocally, Cohen is reduced to a rasp whisper, emotion bleeding through his voice. Lyrically, it is stunning. “Seemed the better way / When first I heard him speak / But now it’s much too late / To turn the other cheek / Sounded like the truth / Seemed the better way / Sounded like the truth / But it’s not the truth today”
A year that has seen career highlights from David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Nick Cave will have to make room for one more – Leonard Cohen has delivered one of the finest albums of his 50 year career. Every song is stunning. Highly recommended.
Verdict: Leonard Cohen Afterworld
For Fans of: Leonard Cohen
- You Want It Darker
- On the Level
- Leaving the Table
- If I Didn’t Have Your Love
- Traveling Light
- It Seemed the Better Way
- Steer Your Way
- String Reprise / Treaty