Published Oct 20, 2016On the cover of this, his 14th full-length, Leonard Cohen sits, humbly checking off everything that is stereotypically "cool": sunglasses, hat, cigarette in hand, eyes averted. It may be his most striking album art to date (if not second to the disarming image of him casually eating a banana on 1988's I'm Your Man). His arm rests on the edge of an off-white frame, and surrounding that frame is pitch black — how fitting, for an album titled You Want It Darker. Is he lost, or simply lost in thought? One thing is certain: the man has lived, the man has loved, and the man is still considering all of the above.
You Want It Darker finds the musician reflecting upon what once was and what can no longer be. It's classic Cohen, making mention of death, romance and religion, the latter being the strongest theme here, as he shows curiosity surrounding death, some regret regarding romance and a belief in God but a disappointment with him and fellow believers, too. But most evident of all is an acceptance of all three.
Opening with an eerie male choir chant, we soon hear the album title uttered into existence: "You want it darker?" It's a repeated mantra here, contrasted amongst the vocal harmonies, organs and a trance-like, muted bass line. It's a deep, dark introduction to a man looking back at his life ("Only one of us was real, and that was me"), looking towards the future ("I'm ready, my Lord") and perhaps mourning some of the in-betweens ("I'm old and I've had to settle on a different point of view").
This wouldn't be a Leonard Cohen record without lyrics that double as poetry, disgruntled and sighed, and You Want It Darker delivers. A few highlights: "My lost was saying found, my don't was saying do," he sings in "On The Level"; in "Steer Your Way," "As he died to make man holy, let us die to make things cheap"; on "Leaving the Table," he says "we're spending the treasure that love cannot afford, I know you can feel it — the sweetness restored."
The album's production can be credited to his son, Adam, a musician in his own right that here provides an ideal atmosphere to marry to his father's insightful and thoughtful words (along with previous collaboration from composer Patrick Leonard, who often offers some curious pairings, of fiddles and bongos with breathy female backup vocals).
On the slow swing of "Leaving the Table," were the self-described Ladies Man speaks of retiring his old ways: "I don't need a lover, no, no, that wretched beast is tamed." There's such authenticity in his repeated "no, no, no," delivered in a half-sung, half-spoken low register, deep as a starless night sky. His voice keeps everything grounded amidst the slow growing strings, soft guitar and pedal steel. "Travelling Light" is robust, with plenty of variation in instrumentation (mandolins strummed in classic European fashion, deep hypnotic electric drum, Wurlitzer, those classic female backing vocals that Cohen uses time and time again) and oozes cool. When Cohen sings "Travelling Light, it's au revoir, my once so bright, my fallen star" in that deep register that makes the banal sound brilliant, you don't mind that he ends that line with the slightly cheesy, "I'm running late, they'll close the bar, I used to play one mean guitar."
"On The Level" is a definite highlight, housing a bluesy and slightly gospel groove; "Seemed the Better Way" may be the album's heaviest cut, Cohen's voice sounding close, very close, his lyrics dealing with doubt and regret.
Near the album's end, Cohen delivers some heavy lines that hint at his own mortality: "And please don't make me go there, though there be a god or not / Year by year, month by month, day by day, thought by thought." Ending with a gorgeous but heartbreaking string reprise of "Treaty," one wonders if this will be Cohen's last record, if this is his Blackstar. This wonder, this worry perhaps, hasn't seemed to inhibit Cohen in the slightest, though. You Want It Darker is a strong record, with an even stronger message. With age comes wisdom and reflection, which certainly rings clear here, as Cohen gracefully wonders — as we all do — what'll happen next. (Columbia)