There are some acts that I don’t seem to get into until late in the game. I get distracted pretty easily. In the case of Leonard Cohen, it would appear I waited too long. I knew very little about Leonard Cohen before his brilliant new release “You Want It Darker,” and his recent demise. I was always aware of Leonard Cohen but like so many other acts, I kept thinking I’d get into him later, when I get time. I had heard great cover versions of his songs by a diverse group of acts from Don Henley, the Civil Wars all the way to Jeff Buckley. I had never really heard much of Leonard Cohen actually singing. I was more familiar with Johnny Cash doing “Bird On a Wire” than Leonard.
I did a post a few months ago on Iggy Pop. He was another act I had waited to get into. His last record, “Post Pop Depression” just pulled me in. I did a lot of extensive research on Iggy, I went back and listened to the Stooges, and his early albums with Bowie. It helped me frame his career in my mind. With Leonard Cohen, I took a bit more spare approach. I only went back to his first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” I had heard a lot of bad feedback about Cohen’s voice. I will say, for the most part, I can understand the complaints. He’s certainly no Steve Perry from Journey, but I’d tell you Cohen’s voice is infinitely more interesting. (And, to be fair, like everybody, I liked Journey.) Like Bob Dylan, people always told me that he was a great poetic lyricist but his songs were better performed by others. Even my friend Doug commented to me a couple of weeks ago that he couldn’t get into Cohen because of his voice and Doug’s tolerance for different music is pretty high. He’s more adventurous than I am, and I envy that.
“Songs of Leonard Cohen,” his debut, is a great album. The lyrics are as poetic as anybody not named Bob Dylan have ever written. The instrumentation was spare and frankly his voice, while not great, delivers the songs very well. To me it was a more poetic version of a singer/songwriter album. I can imagine my brilliant aunt, back in 1968, listening to Cohen’s debut album in her dorm room, smoking those Marlboro Red 100’s she was so fond of. She was a smart lady and probably dug how literate and intelligent the lyrics are. She was the type of person who would have enjoyed that debut album, turned off the stereo and then headed down to burn the Student Union or some other administration building. I do miss that woman. “Songs of Leonard Cohen” gave me a reference point for Cohen’s work but nothing had me prepared for “You Want It Darker.”
“You Want It Darker” is a deep, dark LP that will likely be rarely heard by anybody outside of the already Cohen converted. Other than me, I doubt anybody will suddenly start listening to Leonard Cohen as a result of this LP. And that is really too bad because this is heady stuff. Like Dylan’s voice, after all these years Cohen’s voice is all gravel and rust. If the tomb could sing, it would sound like Leonard Cohen on this album. Cohen’s voice conjure the infinite, the unknowable. There was a lot of commentary about Dylan when he released “Time Out of Mind” that Dylan, who had been ill, was writing about his imminent demise. I think that commentary was mostly hype, but in the case of “You Want It Darker” I think that’s true. This album is the sound of a man wrestling with mortality, with memories of lost loves and the battles that love brings. Some of these songs, “You Want It Darker” and “Leaving The Table” sound like a man telling God he’s ready to die. “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.” Holy shit man, that’s heavy. It’s a fascinating listen.
“Treaty” is the best song I’ve ever heard penned for a former lover. Lines like “I heard the snake was baffled by his sin” and “I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine,” brought chills to my spine. I think we’ve all had a relationship that ended badly. “On the Level” is another great song addressed to an ex. “When I turned my back on the devil, I turned my back on the angel too.” There is good and bad in every person and every relationship and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it so poignantly described. It’s like Cohen is settling all of his old scores on this record. Either with former lovers or as I said, with God himself. He doesn’t sound bitter here although I get traces of anger as he wrestles with his Maker.
There was a line in Dylan’s song, “Things Have Changed” that I always liked. He sings the line, “Don’t get up gentlemen, I’m just passing through…” I don’t know why that line appealed to me so much. It was like winking at the graveyard. Cohen’s song “Traveling Light” on this record reminds me of that sentiment. The lyrics “I’m traveling light,
It’s au revoir, My once so bright, my fallen star, I’m running late, they’ll close the bar” sum it all up for me.
The instrumentation is sparse like on his debut record. The production was done this time around by Cohen’s son and recorded in the home he shared with his daughter. The production perfectly frames that haggard instrument, Cohen’s voice. I just find this album hypnotic. I can’t stop listening to it and hearing something new in the lyrics. I’ve always been a sucker for a well written line. This is tumbler of bourbon, the sun is coming up and you’re ruminating on past decisions with your eyes on the horizon as you wonder what’s next.
So now I guess I have to start buying Leonard Cohen albums. It’s going to take me a while to get through this guy’s vast catalog but after listening to “You Want It Darker” I get the feeling it’s going to be very worth it.
I don’t know if anybody will be moved to listen to “You Want It Darker” based on this post but I strongly urge you to do so. Even though the Rock Chick said “I think I should be worried about you for listening to this music,” I still love this album.
Pour something strong and brace yourself.