You Want It Darker is Leonard Cohen’s last album of his lifetime. It treads the familiar territories of God, sex and death, but with the tone of a man who knows he’s nearing the end and has loosened his grip on them. They are all there, but not as in your face as they once were.
Cohen’s music has always been a place where the sacred and the profane meet. Biblical metaphors are juxtaposed with those that speak of gambling and drinking. There’s also the characteristic blend of Jewish and Christian metaphors. All this is delivered in Cohen’s rumbling bass voice supported by a cushion of instrumentation and backing vocals that cradle but never overwhelm his words. Musically the most interesting textures are provided by the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir, which provides backing vocals on “You Want It Darker” and “It Seemed a Better Way.” This infuses both tracks with a distinctly Jewish flavour.
Most of the songs on this album address someone with their lyrics. Whether it is God, a lover, God as lover or the general audience, there is always an element of purposeful ambiguity. One is a partial metaphor for the other.
The album’s opener, “You Want It Darker,” is a cheeky accusatory address to God, and a Psalmic recognition of the unfairness of reality.
If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
Cohen seems to be saying to God, “if you’re in charge, then I don’t stand a chance.” The world already seems a very dark place for humans, but Cohen accuses God of wanting it darker, and wonders why.
But the song seems to recognize that this isn’t the whole story. Cohen uses the song to lay out the paradoxical nature of humanity’s relationship with God, how he was “magnified” as a deity in heaven but “vilified” and “crucified” when he came as a human being. For Cohen, the paradoxical nature of the relationship holds true from God’s side as well. “There’s a lover in the story, but the story’s still the same.” God might care for humanity, but we still suffer, and some suffer more than others. In response to this state of affairs, Cohen tells God, “Hineni” (Hebrew for “here I am”), “I’m ready my Lord.”
This attitude of resignation to God and circumstance is also present in “Treaty.” “I wish there was a treaty, between your love and mine.” “Treaty,” the second track, frames the remainder of the album as it’s reprised with a new verse at the end of the album.
Within this frame the songs seem to have more human concerns. The relationships referenced are with a human lover or Cohen struggling with his relationship to himself and the world. Most of these take the same resigned tone of the previous songs but still manage to maintain a cheeky humour at points. In “On the Level,” Cohen jokes,
I was fighting with temptation
But I didn’t want to win
A man like me don’t like to see temptation caving in.
Cohen tries to state his case to a former lover he had to let go, yet he does admit in leaving that he missed out on something.
When I turned my back on the devil
Turned my back on the angel too.
The temptations presented in these songs aren’t only sexual in nature. In “Steer Your Way,” Cohen lists off obstacles to the truth and fulfilment. These temptations manifest themselves as beliefs that have proven themselves fallible. Religion, goodness, consumerism and pain are all questioned, although even Cohen is forced to admit that some of these might be steered past but others need be steered through. Cohen is also clear that this negotiation requires vigilance. Steering happens in increments,
Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought.
There’s a clear theme of resigned disillusionment that comes with age. This is probably the reason sexuality is only indirectly addressed on this album. The journey is long and things aren’t as they first seemed, and it’s too late to make a difference or a change. The state of things isn’t worth fighting over, but it also seems that Cohen feels that it’s worth making the best of what there is. The reprise of “Treaty” that closes the album holds out a glimmer of hope.
We were broken then but now we’re borderline.
Things aren’t perfect, but we’re moving in the right direction.
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