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.
However, given Cohen’s advanced age — he turned 82 last month — You Want It Darker hasn’t been received as just another excellent (or excellently morbid) Leonard Cohen LP. Instead, many seem to regard it as a death-bed confession, praising it as a “graceful exit,” a “bleak masterpiece” (perhaps stark, again, would’ve sufficed), or, wincingly, a work of “deadly certainty.”
This impression of You Want It Darker was helped along by David Remnick’s masterful profile, an expansive and thoughtful piece that was unfortunately boiled down to a partial quote taken out of context. I came to the New Yorker story as I’m sure many people did, via aggregators who portrayed Remnick’s depiction of Cohen as an old, dying lion on his last legs. Fortunately, the actual article is much richer (and funnier) than that.
“I have all my marbles, so far,” Cohen tells Remnick. “I have many resources, some cultivated on a personal level, but circumstantial, too: my daughter and her children live downstairs, and my son lives two blocks down the street. So I am extremely blessed. I have an assistant who is devoted and skillful… So in a certain sense I’ve never had it better.”
How interesting that “I’m ready to die” became the narrative for You Want It Darker, and not “I’ve never had it better.” Cohen’s health apparently has diminished — there are compression fractures in his back, which makes it difficult for him to leave his modest L.A. area home. He recorded You Want It Darker mostly in his living room, emailing files to his son, Adam Cohen, and longtime collaborator, Patrick Leonard, for subtle instrumental shadings.
But, given that he’s a man in his 80s, Leonard Cohen seems to be doing pretty well, especially considering the quality (and quantity) of music he’s created lately. You Want It Darker is his third album in five years, which already makes the ’10s Cohen’s most productive decade since the ’70s. Along with 2012’s Old Ideas and 2014’s Popular Problems, You Want It Darker forms a top-notch late-career trilogy that can stand with the best music of his career.
Even more impressive is that, unlike a lot of his contemporaries, Cohen hasn’t tried to re-create any of his most famous guises, whether it’s the austere folk of his first three albums or the paranoid synth-pop of 1988’s I’m Your Man and 1992’s The Future. Instead, Cohen is making albums he could’ve only conceived at this specific moment in his life, settling into a gently contemplative chamber-gospel groove that complements his battered but still emotive monotone.
In “Leaving the Table,” Cohen adopts the familiar posture of the spurned romantic who gambles on love and loses — a callback perhaps to “The Stranger Song” from 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen — prompting him to announce that he’s “Leaving the table / I’m out of the game.” Is Cohen talking about a permanent exit? Perhaps, though those wolfish grunts punctuating the song’s opening verses suggest that Laughing Len hasn’t completely given up on lust. Or, as Cohen purrs in “On The Level,” he’s still “fighting with temptation,” though “a man like me don’t like to see temptation caving in.”
My favorite song on You Want It Darker is “If I Didn’t Have Your Love,” which piles on the metaphors for death, if that’s what you’re looking for. There is an extinguished sun, a cold wind, an endless night, a pile of fallen leaves, flowers made of stone, and a whole world swallowed without a trace. But all of this imagery is ultimately in service of expressing an obsessive infatuation. For those seeking a murder ballad, “If I Didn’t Have Your Love” might sound like a slow suffocation. But the way the song is arranged, with slinky guitar and warm organ fills playing off Cohen’s soulful vocal, communicates something entirely different. “If I Didn’t Have Your Love” is not a murder ballad, it’s the sort of love song that Al Green made famous.
In my view, Cohen seems more comfortable in his own skin, and more assured in his own art, than perhaps he ever has. In 2012, I saw Cohen perform a three-hour show for an adoring audience. He’d come a long way from the fits of stage fright he suffered in the late ’60s — I saw him literally skip onto the stage at the start of the show, like he was Springsteen about to blast off with the E Street Band. Cohen has since had to retire from the road, but his songwriting muse has remained steadfast.
So, why do people keep trying to bury Leonard Cohen? I suspect it’s related to general discomfort with the aging process. Old musicians are no different than old civilians — after a certain age, they tend to get set aside until it’s time to plan their funerals. The Johnny Cash-style “mortality” record has become a cliche for senior-citizen musical icons — we’ve grown accustomed to watching our heroes strip their music down to the barest essentials, sing about their own demises, and then collect our obligatory platitudes before fading into the sunset. I don’t deny that there’s an element of that to You Want It Darker, but it’s not all the album is about, or even the most interesting aspect.
Here’s what matters: Leonard Cohen has made more great albums this decade than almost anybody. He’s not simply winding down; he’s in the midst of another golden age, and You Want It Darker should be celebrated as such. In the meantime, let’s not write his obituary just yet. Instead, give another spin to “It Seemed the Better Way,” in which Cohen pens his own best review: “At first he touched on love / But then he touched on death / It sounded like the truth / It seemed the better way / It sounded like the truth / But it’s not the truth today.”
Steven Hyden is Uproxx’s Cultural Critic and the author of Your Favorite Band is Killing Me and an upcoming book on the rise and fall of classic rock. Say hello to him on Twitter.