“I’m leaving the table,” utters Leonard Cohen early into his remarkably ruminative “You Want It Darker” album. “I’m out of the game.”
Cohen has pulled this trick before, especially in a prolific career renaissance that has seen the release of three studio albums and four concert records since 2009 (and that doesn’t even include additional archival releases). He loves, in his whispery bullfrog voice, to paint songs as parting shots — remembrances of love and faith served with an eerily calm that borders on the unsettling. Cohen could be singing, in a largely half-spoken manner, about an affair or the apocalypse. The delivery makes each indistinguishable from the other, especially when you factor in the light, funereal music that hangs over Cohen’s work.
“You Want It Darker” is, gloriously, more of the same.
At age 82, Cohen has every right to take stock of his own mortality. But that’s not necessarily what “You Want It Darker” is about. More than perhaps any other subject, Cohen sings about release — spiritual, emotional and physical. With that, though, comes a price. On “Treaty,” the rebirth of a snake, despite the obvious religious imagery, is considered, knowing that any transformation must include the creature’s very earthly venom. “Born again is born without a skin,” Cohen sings. “The poison enters into everything.”
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Conversely, the gypsy dance air of “Traveling Alone” is a song of farewell to a romance. While all parties seem to seek dissolution, not everyone seems capable of fully implementing it. “I know you’re right, about the blues. You live some life you’d never choose.”
As narrative heavy and poetically driven as Cohen’s music has always been, “You Want It Darker” is also one of the most musically arresting works of his career. Credit much of that to son Adam Cohen, who produced the album, and especially veteran producer Patrick Leonard, who arranged and even authored some of the musical dressings, which culminate in a string quartet-driven reprise of “Treaty” that closes the recording.
These elements also merge on the album-opening title track. Co-written by Leonard, the work introduces the record’s arching quest for release by professing darkness before any resolution of light. The first sound you hear is an ancient choral ensemble. Then a looping beat percolates as Neil Larsen’s churchy organ colors in the atmospherics. Finally, Cohen enters — a quiet, scarred voice addressing doom and comfort as naturally as the song depicts spiritual yearning and human dismay. It is a captivating slice of music that, in all its dark, hushed beauty, embodies the temperament of the present day Cohen.
“A million candles burning for the love that never came,” Cohen sings. “You want it darker. We kill the flame.” Then, almost under his breath as the chorus is completed, Cohen caps the mesmerizing incantation with three words that remind us what we’re hearing is, after, still pop music.
“Hey, hey, hey.”