- 21 Oct 21
Five years ago today, Leonard Cohen released You Want It Darker, just 17 days before his death. To mark the album's anniversary, we're revisiting Colm O'Hare's review – originally published in Hot Press in 2016.
The 14th studio album from Montreal’s master of morbidity comes amid reports of his imminent demise. (He told the audience at a launch party in LA that he was, quote, “ready to die” but has since said he intends to, “live forever.”) While Cohen has long embraced his reputation as the poet laureate of existential despair, there are so many musings on mortality here that you have to wonder if he really means it this time. In fairness, he’s 82 and hasn’t performed live since 2013, but insists he has no serious illnesses apart from the ravages of age.
Produced by his son Adam Cohen, You Want It Darker is also replete with religious themes and biblical imagery, the eight songs clocking in at just over 35 minutes. The first few notes are certainly foreboding. Over a heavenly choir and pounding bass-line, in that deep rich baritone voice he croons, “I’m out of the game/ I’m broken and lame/ I’m ready my lord.” On ‘Treaty’, he admits: “I’m angry and I’m tired all the time.” And on ‘Leaving The Table’ – twang-core guitar and a classic 1950s doo-wop melody notwithstanding – he revisits the theme: “Little by little we’re cutting the cord.”
It’s not all doom and gloom however, and the gorgeously seductive ‘If I Didn’t Have Your Love’ is a jazzy torch song that you could imagine an artist like Norah Jones singing. ‘On The Level’, too, has a classic Cohen sound with a melody that is crying out for a cover version.
With music written largely by collaborator Patrick Leonard, the arrangements veer from sweeping orchestration (‘Treaty’), to a light rock rhythm section with soulful backing (‘On The Level’). Elsewhere, with Klezmer fiddle and a haunting Eastern European texture, ‘Travelling Light’ is more unsettling, as he teases with wordplay: “I guess I’m just someone who has given up/ goodnight, goodnight my fallen star.” The final track, ‘Steer Your Way’, blends a country-ish rhythm with classical touches and an apocalyptic lyric: “Steer your way through the ruins of the altar and the mall/ Steer your way through the fables of creation and the fall.”
Hugely enjoyable and utterly compelling – one of his best.