Kris Kristofferson once told Leonard Cohen that he wanted to steal the opening lines from ‘Bird On A Wire’ to be inscribed on his tombstone. The surprising thing is that he was actually able to choose at all: “Like a bird on a wire/ Like a drunk in a midnight choir/ I have tried, in my way, to be free” is perfect, but then, so is “There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in” from ‘Anthem’; so’s “Dance me to the end of love” or “Nevermind, we’re ugly but we have the music” or “And even though it all went wrong/ I’ll stand before the Lord of Song/ With nothing on my tongue/ But Hallelujah”. More than anyone else, Leonard Cohen seemed to write epitaphs rather than couplets, his words like pennies on your eyes to keep you rich and help you pay the tollman. In some sense, his music has always felt like it’s got half an eye on the great journey beyond, a soundtrack for taking the final step. As Kurt Cobain sang on ‘Pennyroyal Tea’: “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/ So I can sigh eternally.”
It’s for that reason that You Want It Darker, released on Cohen’s 82nd birthday and three weeks before his death, feels so different to David Bowie’s Blackstar, 2016’s other great stage-managed exit. Bowie’s final album came, to us, as a huge shock to the system, a mysterious document hiding all manner of hints and clues as to what its creator was facing. With Cohen, there’s no such surprise - not just because he himself had spoken candidly about the possibility this album would be his swansong, but because its final-curtain themes of life, love, spirituality and meaning are the same ones he’d been teasing meaning from for decades; he’d started wrestling with one of the songs here, according to Rolling Stone, at least a decade ago. “I’m ready my lord,” he grumbles on the title track - that croaking baritone somehow deeper and sootier than ever - probably because, in some ways, it feels like he’s always been sharpening his pen for these final despatches.
Much of Cohen’s finest work has also been fuelled by the power of fresh discoveries and the pleasures of walking upon untrodden ground, whether it’s the leap from guitars to cheap, Casio-inspired keyboards on Various Positions, the modern cold snaps of I’m You Man or dystopian terror of The Future. I don’t think it’s sacrilege to say that, sonically, there isn’t the same sense of startling reinvention with the stately sound of You Want It Darker, although it’s undeniably grander, lusher, more beautiful than its forbears; its melancholy mixture of string laments, orchestral flourishes and sombre choirs virtually compel you to bow your head in hushed reverence. Instead, it draws its power from the way Cohen chooses to confront his dwindling mortality. It’s tempting to remember how, on ‘So Long, Marianne’, he once defended himself from charges of cowardice by insisting: “I never said that I was brave.” Because it’s bravery more than anything else that defines You Want It Darker - not in some sense of syrupy, stiff upper-lipped sentiment, but in the way he resigns himself to messy endings and resists the glib need for neat conclusions. If this was imagined as, potentially, an artistic last will and testament, any sense of finality is scuppered by doubt and anxiety; after all those years slogging away in the Tower of Song, the big questions still remain unanswered. And however prepared he is, he’s not beyond a touch of bitterness, either. “If you are the dealer, let me out of the game/ If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame/ If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame,” he sings, still sore that the game’s been rigged all along.
There’s a similar weary frustration to ‘Treaty’, too, in which Cohen takes on a higher power but comes away with little comfort or clarity. “I’ve seen you change water into wine/ I’ve seen you change it back too,” he sighs over gentle piano, still unsure where he stands, before ruefully concluding: “Only one of us was real and that was me.” On the half-mournful, half-menacing ‘It Seemed The Better Way’, a wailing violin is replaced by the cold hum of an organ as Cohen growls “Sounded like the truth/ But it’s not the truth.” Elsewhere, meanwhile, there are nods to the past and admissions that time has had its victory over him. The showy flamenco finger-picking on ‘Travelling Light’ makes a mockery of Cohen remembering how he “used to play one mean guitar”, while ‘Leaving The Table’ does the unthinkable by having him confess that his beloved libido is no more. Once, on ‘I’m Your Man’, he boasted of how “the beast won’t go to sleep”; here, that same “wretched” monster now lies “tame”. Leonard Cohen without a hard-on? The flaccid ravens truly have left the tower.
Given that Cohen was known as the Poet Laureate of Pessimism even when he wasn’t writing about his impending death, it’s easy to think of You Want It Darker as morbid. But as ever, there’s a wry humour and warmth in the gloom: it’s impossible to resist a grin when, in the throes of existential crisis, he wickedly sings “I struggled with some demons/ They were middle-class and tame”, or how, on ‘On The Level’, he seemingly references his famed stint as a Zen monk on Mount Baldy (“I’m living in this temple/ Where they tell you what to do”) and then complains about a time when his conscience bested him, mean-spiritedly steering him away from a naughty decision: “I was fighting with temptation/ But I didn’t want to win/ A man like me don’t like to see/ Temptation caving in.”
‘If I Didn’t Have Your Love’, meanwhile, feels like Cohen’s tribute to one of his constant inspirations; he’s had countless muses - Suzanne, Marianne and more - but here, the who feels less important than that what: it’s as if he’s whispering sweet nothings to the feeling itself, recognising the importance of a sensation he’s eternally hungry for: “If the stars were all unpinned, and a cold and bitter wind/ Swallowed up the world without a trace/ Oh well, that’s where I would be.”
The unique events surrounding its release make it virtually impossible to know how or where to rank You Want It Darker among Cohen’s back catalogue, beyond the easy statement that, as with 2014’s Popular Problems, it’s obvious his powers hadn’t been dimmed by time; that this album sounds like such a final farewell that it’s difficult to see where he’d have gone next; that, he’d probably have still pulled it off, because he usually did. More pertinent, perhaps, would be to acknowledge that while there was always a good chance this was supposed to be ‘the end’, the album doesn’t end with a full stop but instead loops back to the near-beginning. On the final track, he offers up a string reprise of ‘Treaty’, allowing the start and finish lines to overlap. It feels like the best possible ending: a reassurance that, come what may, there’ll always be time to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.