“Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.”
Leonard Cohen said to David Remnick in a New Yorker profile published a few weeks back. The piece has been widely detected for Cohen’s stunning pronouncement therein — “I’m ready to die” — which has been broadly mis-interpreted as a form of fatalistic admission that the end is not far. Cohen has clarified his statement in the days since, although taken out of context, it certainly reads that way. “I’ve always been into self-dramatization,” he chuckled at a Q&A session in Los Angeles last week Actually, he continued,“I intend to live forever.”
Both quotes are interesting to consider in the context of ‘You Want It Darker’ the 14th studio album of a long and distinguished career. The record was released on Friday, meaning if you’re a Cohen fan, you may well have been listening to it avidly all weekend. Like all of Cohen’s records, it’s a subtle, profound, interesting piece of work, a group of tunes that disclose more about themselves — and hence, about the record as a whole — every time you listen to them.
At face value, ‘You Want It Darker’ is certainly, well, dim. But the more you listen to ‘You Want It Darker’, the more you start to sense a specific levity. However aficionados could be forgiven for expecting this record to be a downbeat, sad farewell.
Instead, it’s reflective more than anything. The abiding impression is of a man, placing his affairs in order. The last decade or so has been, gently, a creative Indian summer for Cohen — he’s released five albums during the entirety of the 1980s, after only three since the turn of the millennium and the ’90s. The fire continues to be warm, and comforting, and lovely in its own solemn way, although it’s melancholy, sure.
This is the disposition throughout ‘You Want It Darker’: Cohen is working, sitting by that fire, because he has things to say. In reality, he has more to say than ever. This is the kind of subject matter that one can simply address with the benefit of life experience.
For whatever reason, much of our culture’s musical output is interwoven with veneration of youth: drugs and sex and rock n’ roll that is so deeply linked, that reciting their names is now a cliché. Because music is the most visceral of art forms, the one that makes you want to get up and dance and sing along perhaps. These are things you’ll be able to compose a song about when you’re 20 — and, really, when you qualified to do that. Cohen’s work has, to say the very, very obvious, never has been like that: his preoccupations are those of poets and novelists (and, of course, he’s also written both poetry and novels.) And he continues to hone his craft, nearly half a century since the launch of his first record.
It’s one of the cruelties of our nature that it takes a lifetime to amass the wisdom and expertise and empathy that Cohen puts on display here; that it’s the end of life that appears to bring the clarity and hush required to express everything you’ve learned. ‘You Want It Darker’ finds Leonard Cohen in perfect equilibrium — it’s the work of a man who has dwelt 82 years on this world and however, as Cohen himself put it, “ has all [ his] marbles.” It’s the work of a guy who is setting his house in order. We will all be poorer for it when his death does come — but equally, we should celebrate a life well lived, a life that educates every word on this delightful group of songs.