Now… about that cigarette. Casually positioned between Leonard Cohen’s index and middle fingers on the cover of his 14th studio album, it can’t help but seem like a provocation. For one thing, it flagrantly rebukes the notion that, at the age of 82, the music world’s preeminent Jewish Canadian Zen Buddhist is finally done with earthly pleasures and concerns. It’s a theme he’s returned to in many songs and poems over the last 15 years, as if the romantic and religious fatalism at the core of the man’s writing had hardened into an all-pervasive attitude of resignation. It’s there in You Want It Darker’s beautifully sombre title track, in which he variously imagines himself as a luckless gambler who’s “out of the game” and a bone-weary supplicant who raises his eyes heavenward and rumbles, “I’m ready, my Lord” in his best Humphrey Bogart. It’s there again in “Traveling Light”, a new number that seems tailor-made for the end of the night in some Greek tavern, empty save for a weathered bouzouki player and a broken-down Lothario who’s done with love’s illusions. As Cohen sings in a wry tone, “I guess I’m just someone who has given up on the me and you.”
That cigarette may also confound anyone who presumed he was cracking wise during a favourite piece of stage patter since he resumed his performing career in the mid-2000s. Having officially quit smoking in 2003, he claimed to be waiting until he turned 80 for his return to the “Parthenon of Tobacco”, when he’d pluck a stick from a silver tray held out to him by a young nurse in “white lisle stockings”. She’d light him up and he’d take his first drag. “It’s gonna be soooo good,” he’d say to the audience, eliciting an especially hearty laugh from the ex-smokers in the room
And here he is two years after reaching that goal. His son Adam Cohen – officially credited as You Want It Darker’s producer, handling six of nine tracks – recently explained the origin of the cover photo, which he snapped when his father joined him on a balcony for one of his own smoke breaks. “Truth is,” Adam claimed, “he smokes very little but it hits the spot sometimes.” Nevertheless, in a correspondence recounted on the fan site Cohencentric, the singer facetiously claimed the cigarette in the picture was unlit. He was reportedly amused by the site’s doctored version of the image, with the offending cancer stick replaced by a bunch of asparagus.
Regardless of fans’ health concerns, that cigarette suits the contents of You Want It Darker, the third and strongest of a very-late-career run of masterworks that began with Old Ideas in 2012 and continued with 2014’s Popular Problems. That’s because, with its spare but perfectly judged arrangements, its alternately sepulchral and mordant nature and its lack of the more contemporary trappings of recent predecessors, the album evokes the music he made back when he clearly didn’t give a toss who saw him smoking on a record cover. Exquisitely crafted, You Want It Darker follows a snaky line back to Songs Of Love And Hate (1971) and New Skin For The Old Ceremony (1974), the albums that nestle on either side of 1973’s Live Songs and its iconic image of Cohen looking like a condemned prisoner in the midst of his final smoke.
The parallels are unmistakable when it comes to the musical settings for Cohen’s latest lamentations. Whether it’s the men’s choir used on You Want It Darker’s title track and “It Seemed The Better Way” (recruited from the same Montreal synagogue where Cohen had his bar mitzvah), the lonesome pedal steel on “Leaving The Table” by the great Bill Bottrell or the judicious application of strings in several songs, the adornments here recall the kind favoured by Paul Buckmaster and John Lissauer on Cohen’s early ’70s recordings. That’s a far cry from the starker sensibility of his late-’60s albums with Bob Johnston, his overstuffed musical misadventures with Phil Spector on Death Of A Ladies Man in 1977 and – perhaps most dramatically – the emblems of high-gloss modernity he’s preferred in the last three decades or so. Though the murky electronic textures and beats deep in the mix mean that You Want It Darker is not a purely backward-looking exercise, the shadows in these songs are rarely troubled by the brighter sonic palettes of the synthesisers that Cohen has loved ever he since he fell for a cheap Casio in the early ’80s.
Indeed, Adam Cohen has often told interviewers how much he’d been begging his father to make a record like New Skin For The Old Ceremony, his favourite of the old man’s and a clear touchstone for many of his own albums. It’s this sound that the younger Cohen believes is the one they most identify with his father. “When I try to tell him this,” said Adam in 2011, “I don’t think he likes it very much.”
Evidently, he’s convinced his dad that a journey through the past needn’t just be some calculation to re-entice boomers who were thrown by the digital-era frills on I’m Your Man and The Future (1992) and have maintained a wariness about his studio albums ever since. What’s remarkable about You Want It Darker is how it melds that earlier aesthetic with the time-tempered outlook of the man he is in his ninth decade, a man who has as little interest in nostalgia as he does in the “me and you”. Better yet, Adam Cohen understands it takes more than a synagogue choir to give a song like the title track the requisite sense of grandeur. It’s also about leaving the right amount of space around his father’s doom-filled rumblings. By contrast, even the best songs on Popular Problems and Old Ideas can seem unnecessarily cluttered.
Less surprising is the high standard Cohen has maintained with his craft as a songwriter. Then again, he’s a master of making something new out of an old idea. “Traveling Light” is a reworking of a poem that first appeared in print in Book Of Longing in 2006. Another poem that dates back to the early 2000s, “It Seemed The Better Way” offers a typically astute and brutal commentary on the inefficacy of Jesus’ lessons in a world as crummy as ours. “It sounded like the truth,” he muses, “it seemed the better way/ Though no-one but a fool would bless the meek today.”
Presented in a string-heavy arrangement that deviates from You Want It Darker’s generally austere nature yet doesn’t feel overbearing, “Treaty” has been through multiple versions over the last seven years – according to his longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard, who produced three tracks here. The lyrics’ military conceit also makes it a successor to canonic Cohen songs like “There Is A War” as well as a companion piece to “Nevermind”, the Popular Problems standout that opened with the lines: “The war was lost/The treaty signed.” The difference here is that war never ended, leaving the lover narrator to wish “There was a treaty behind your love and mine.” He offers something like an apology, one that acknowledges the narcissism required of any skilled ladies’ man. “I’m so sorry for the ghost that I made you be,” he sings in a voice between a murmur and a croak. “Only one of us was real and it was me.”
Ruthless and revealing, the sentiment cuts straight to the heart of a work that frequently captures Cohen at his most self-deprecating and self-lacerating yet surprises just as often for its warmth and humour. A ballad that’s given a stately grace by its churchy organ and Bill Bottrell’s James Burton-like guitar contribution, “If I Didn’t Have Your Love” is destined to be a wedding-first-dance favourite as soon as Michael Bublé gets his hands on it. In “Leaving The Table”, Cohen may double down on the old-gambler schtick that first surfaces in “You Want It Darker” but he doesn’t bottom out. Instead, he leavens what could’ve been a bleak sayonara to this mortal coil with bone-dry quips and a sly suggestion that you may feel “the sweetness restored” once you’ve given up that ghost.
Propelled by an insistent violin figure, “Steer Your Way” forces listeners through a vision of a ravaged world, past “the ruins of the altar and the mall”. Though the journey ends in death (or at least in the fear of it), the effect is liberating. All that’s left to hear is the string reprise for “Treaty” and a few more lines sung with a softness that suggests the war may have finally reached a resolution. Either that or both sides are bleeding out on the battlefield.
It’s become a cliché to treat every latter-day Cohen album like a potential swansong but it’s hard to imagine a richer, finer or more satisfying finale than this. There’s no question the man’s earned his smoke break. One just hopes it remains a rare pleasure lest he squander any time left on the clock.
The December 2016 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring our cover story on Pink Floyd, plus a free CD compiled by Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner that includes tracks by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Sleaford Mods, Yo La Tengo, Can. Elsewhere in the issue, there’s The Damned, Julia Holter, Desert Trip, Midlake, C86, David Pajo, Nils Frahm and the New Classical, David Bowie, Tim Buckley, REM, Norah Jones, Morphine, The Pretenders and more plus 140 reviews