In the fall of 1970, Leonard Cohen did not want to make another album. As recounted by biographer Sylvie Simmons in I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, Cohen felt depressed in the aftermath of an extensive tour in support of 1969’s Songs From a Room. Not yet an assured performer, Cohen later recalled feeling “a deep, paralyzing anguish” after reading so many negative reviews of his concerts. Now, he just wanted to hole up in a Tennessee cabin with this partner, Suzanne, and lick his wounds.
But Cohen was under contract to Columbia Records, and his producer Bob Johnston made it clear that the record company would not accept two consecutive live albums (per Cohen’s suggestion) in lieu of original material from one of the era’s most acclaimed songwriters. So, Cohen set about work on arguably the grimmest LP of his career, 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate.
“Critics had called Songs From a Room bleak. It wasn’t; it was stark. Songs of Love and Hate was bleak,” Simmons writes. The album concludes with a terrifying ballad called “Joan of Arc,” in which Cohen imagines the famous martyr’s inner monologue as she’s burned alive.
“Myself I long for love and light,” Cohen moans, evoking the flash of fire against Joan’s flesh. “But must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?” For Cohen, Joan of Arc was yet another symbol of life’s ecstatic agony.
I mention this to illustrate a rather obvious point: During the duration of Leonard Cohen’s storied career, his obsessions have scarcely changed. He has long been enraptured by the tragedy of love and the romance of oblivion. Even in the prime of his life, when he was feted by critics and beautiful women alike, Leonard Cohen was a peerless brooder. He has always seemed, as the most publicized pull-quote from Cohen’s recent New Yorker profile stated bluntly, “ready to die.” He didn’t earn the sardonic sobriquet “Laughing Len” for nothing.
So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Cohen’s 14th studio album, You Want It Darker, is fixated on the same dark subjects. “I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim,” Cohen intones gravely on the title track. Then, he seems to address God herself. “I’m ready, my lord.” When it comes to hymns exulting man’s capacity for self-immolation, nobody owns that haunted thematic terrain like Leonard Cohen. You Want It Darker renews his claim.