How the Light Goes Out
Is Leonard Cohen’s new album his last will and testament?
BY PICO IYER
It’s probably not advisable to listen to Leonard Cohen’s newest, and possibly final, album alone in a cabin in the darkness of the Alberta woods after nightfall. And yet, as Cohen might protest, I had no choice. You Want it Darker, as the set of nine songs is entitled, could probably make the brightest soul feel as if he or she is in a tiny cell as the light goes out, hearing the firing squad assemble in the corridor. The man who began his life singing constantly of travelling and “passing through” has come to rest, it seems, in absolute stillness.
Nearly all of Cohen’s songs over the past ten years—dark and grave at the best of times, and ever more elegiac—have been about death. It’s a death he spent five and a half years preparing for while living as a monk in the Mount Baldy Zen Center, near Los Angeles, in his sixties, and a death that acquired a metaphorical dimension when he came down from the mountain to find that a friend had defrauded him of his life’s savings, rendering him all but bankrupt. Long taken with the unexpected—especially when it comes to outliving death notices—Cohen went on the road again, at seventy-three, and turned into, improbably, one of the world’s most beloved recording artists. His 1984 hymn, “Hallelujah,” become the fastest downloaded single in European history; the album he released in 2012 at the age of seventy-seven, called, with scrupulous lack of drama Old Ideas, soared to the top of the charts in seventeen countries.
Yet even that wintry requiem, which began with a song called “Going Home” (about a home that is clearly in the hereafter), and even the more public album he released when he was eighty, Popular Problems, may not have prepared his following for his new one. The title song sounds very much as if it’s addressed to God, and very quickly the singer more or less announces his own death. Cohen’s has always been a world defined by judgment—punishment and sentencing and “sin”—but that has never meant that he believes in justice. At the end of his days, he intones, “I’m ready, my Lord,” but with little expectation, one feels, of that Lord being merciful or kind.
While Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan have wandered through any number of musical forms and philosophies, Cohen stands his ground, delivering his lines like the last man on a sinking ship.
In Popular Problems, two years ago, the singer—grandson and great-grandson of the head of his boyhood synagogue in Montreal—kept shuttling back and forth, always in motion, between the observant Judaism he has never relinquished and the Zen practice of slashing through belief in anything, Zen practice included. Here, such maneuvers seem almost immaterial. It hardly matters if there’s a God or not in the face of a pain “that is far more real than you.” The gulf between the final song on his previous record—an upbeat reminder that “You Got Me Singing” (even though the news was bad)—and the first, title song on You Want It Darker, in which Cohen seems to be singing Kaddish for himself, is abject.
Cohen’s readiness to take on ultimate issues from every angle—in his first recorded song, “Suzanne,” the observant Jewish seeker was already invoking Jesus as his model—has long made him a kind of renegade theologian. And his great gift as a poet is to write with fierce lucidity about mystery. Here, by the third song, he’s crooning, “When I turned my back on the devil, I turned my back on the angel, too.”
It’s a nice idea—that darkness is a non-negotiable part of the package—but it’s also a sobering line, coming from one who, in his earliest songs, was kept from the angels by a woman rather than by religious observances. In his desolating valedictory on the new record, “Steer Your Way,” he urges us to look through the “fable of Creation and the Fall,” to go past “the truth that you believed in yesterday/ Such as fundamental goodness and the Wisdom of the Way.” The fact that the final, almost instrumental piece on the record echoes musically his celebrated song, “Anthem,” about “how the light gets in,” only reminds us that this threnody is about how the light seeps out. All doors are sealed.
The last time I visited Cohen, in his bare home in a neglected part of Los Angeles, he told me that in old age “they” take away your ability to drink, to smoke, to make love, until all you can do is work; the new record, produced while he was fighting off excruciating back pain, along with other afflictions, feels like his final defiant challenge to the universe. When he calls out “Hineni” in the opening song—Abraham’s words to God, “Here I am”—the cry has a barely contained militancy. Perhaps only Cohen would begin a record with a heavenly choir and then assure us that the temple is empty, as are the heavens themselves.
Part of cohen’s power has always, of course, derived from the fact that the “I” in his songs is rooted and precise—it’s hard not to feel he’s laying his soul bare—even as the “you” that features in most of his intimate confessions is all encompassing. In the classical tradition embodied by John Donne and the Bible’s Song of Songs, not to mention Rumi, Cohen’s love songs often sound as if they’re addressed to God. Yet the minute you start reading them as prayers, he’ll throw in a “naked” or “flesh” or “thigh,” so that they tremble like paeans to the power of a goddess, too. On You Want it Darker, however, there’s barely a trace of sensual consolation; where his mumbled croaks are usually sweetened by high-voiced female backup singers, here they’re put in place by an all-male liturgical group from the synagogue. Where most of his songs are flung into an accommodating open space, here it sounds as if they’re cast into a void.
In old age, Cohen indulges in much less wordplay and droll irony than in younger days: the rhymes in his quatrains are relatively straightforward, and they proceed along the aisle, accompanied by mournful strings and simple, hypnotic piano, like hymns with explosives attached. You can hear the ghosts of earlier songs in melodies and lyrics—two of the songs reframe his memorable line from the Zen temple, “I don’t trust my inner feelings / Inner feelings come and go” (itself an echo of the line from Psalms, “He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool”)—and when he growls, “I used to play one mean guitar,” you can’t help but recall his self-mocking line of decades ago about being born with a “golden voice.” To catch echoes of the reeling revelry of his 1992 “Closing Time” on his new album’s final song is to be reminded that that title carries a bitter finality now.
But really this record mostly takes us back to the riddled, naked collection of psalms, Book of Mercy, he published in 1984, at the same time as his indelible songs “Halleuljah” and “If It Be Your Will.” In the past two years or so, Cohen has lost both his longtime Zen teacher and friend, Joshu Sasaki Roshi, and his sister, Esther. The fame he’s won hasn’t seemed to offer much to someone who won the Governor General’s Award almost half a century ago and was announcing the “death of a ladies’ man” in the late 1970s. After the relatively colourful artwork adorning his last two albums—he’d even released a self-portrait from his computer saying, “Happy At Last”—this farewell is stark and monochrome. When he sings, “I guess I’m just somebody who/has given up on the me-and-you,” he’s saying goodbye not just to dualisms, but to every last trace of romance or physical solace.
Cohen’s gift, for forty years now, has come with reporting for duty, in the face of very real life, even though he knows the odds are stacked and there’s no beating the house. His protestations of obedience are given steel by a sense of furious willpower and determination. While his peers, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, have wandered through any number of musical forms and philosophies respectively, Cohen stands his ground, delivering his lines like the last man on a sinking ship. He’s still capable of wit—“I was fighting with temptation, but I didn’t want to win”—and he still takes pains to spurn every orthodoxy and New Age cliché. The references to “dealing” and “killing the flame” that greet us on You Want it Darker’s opening song were all over his first album, forty-nine years ago. But his ferocious commitment to an Old Testament order has him wrestling with the angel until his very last breath. The man who told me, more than twenty years ago, that he didn’t want to be performing at eighty, “the oldest folk-singer around,” has now produced six albums since he turned sixty-seven.
If this is indeed the record on which Cohen goes out, as they say, it will be a fitting testament and capstone to a remarkable career. So many of our great writers, from Philip Roth to Derek Walcott, are, understandably, composing elegies and retrospectives as they near the end, but few settle for as little sentiment or reassurance as Cohen. It feels as if he’s made his way past all justifications and rationales. “I don’t need a reason for what I became,” he sings here, “I’ve got these excuses, they’re tired and lame.” He’s not buying into any drama of the self or its conflicts—“I struggled with some demons / They were middle-class and tame”—and he’s not asking for any favors. As so often, the portrait he uses on the cover could hardly be less flattering; this record, produced by his son, Adam, was largely put together, as usual, in his living-room and backyard.
There are all kinds of secrets tucked into the folds of the songs—notice how the Jewish cantor’s solo sounds startlingly similar to that of a Syrian woman on Cohen’s last record, listen to the particular posthumousness with which Cohen delivers the actual word “death” on “It Seemed the Better Way.” He hasn’t lost his gift for harrowing and uplifting us in the same breath. But on this outing, the man who specializes in intimacy feels as if he’s on very close terms with oblivion.
To conclude the record, the impenitent stranger from Montreal brings on strings to play an instrumental reprise of the second song on the album, “Treaty.” At the very end, Cohen’s voice appears, unexpectedly, again to express a final hopeless wish—and a last-gasp adieu to both water and wine. The man whose first album had one song called “So Long, Marianne,” and another called “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” said a final so long to Marianne Ihlen, his much-hymned lover, in a rending letter three months ago. Now he’s found a way to say goodbye to everyone and everything—especially, perhaps, to whatever he might be tempted to kneel before.
Pico Iyer has written for Harper’s, Time, and The New York Review of Books.