In a weird parallel to Bowie’s Blackstar, Leonard Cohen was to die just a few days after You Want It Darker came out. He also wrote and recorded it while battling terminal illness. Mortality is understandably central to the album’s concerns, therefore – but the tone, mood, and depths are very different. Hardly surprising perhaps – they were very different artists who had pursued sometimes radically contrasting routes through life.
But like Bowie, Cohen seemed like an equal opportunities believer – he was spiritually eclectic, rooted in Judaism, fascinated by Christianity, and at times immersed in eastern religion, even becoming a Buddhist monk in the 90s. The album feels more akin to a personal meditation than Bowie’s public declaration. The arrangements are spare and simple – appropriately but also necessarily. In recent years, he had been suffering from acute spinal problems and so was unable to move around much. So his parts and vocals were recorded at home.
From the outset, we are arrested by his gentle but insistent voice, a basso profundo of Russian choral proportions. At times he’s barely singing; instead, he’s following the Rex Harrison school of rhythmic speech rather than following a melody. It seems whispered, intimate, and intense. And just as Bowie’s death forced an immediate reevaluation of his last album, so we cannot now listen to You Want It Darker without deciphering his last will and testament. We’re gathered around his living room, or perhaps even his bedside, straining to catch the parting pearls from an extraordinary life fully lived.
The album as a whole
What have we got? It really does feel like the album needs to be treated as a unit – however disparate the processes in its creation. I did get a little obsessive on holiday, seeing a web of connections and internal allusions. I’m sure there must be many to his huge output from the past, but I confess I’m nothing like as knowledgeable of that as I am of some other singers.So I came up with this rough diagram to illustrate the initial links as I saw them.
On Death and Dying
This recurs at various points, as we might expect. It’s sometimes melancholy, but not inevitably – there is more an acceptance (more than Bowie seemed to have?) and even an occasional old man’s twinkle in the eye.
- He is leaving ‘the game’ (whatever that is) in the title track, and also in Leaving the table.
- He’s chatting with an attractive young woman in On the Level all too conscious that he’s far too old for this temptation, and while she’s starting out, ‘he’s dying to get back home.’
Leaving usually entails a farewell – and there’s plenty of that here.
- He’s the bar musician who’s packing up his kit for the last time and now Travelling Light – ‘its au revoir I’m running late (there is a lovely optimism in the French greeting there, but at the same time ‘late’ has a darker ambiguity – not least as we listen now). He is the ‘falling star’ (as opposed to Bowie’s blackstar) who also ‘walked away from you’ (in On the Level). He is not the only one who’s followed this transient musician’s life. So he knows how it’s done.
- He’s the friend who knows he’s been loved and sustained, in If I didn’t’ have your love, and that is the thing that makes everything real. It is a beautifully organic song, harvesting life-sustaining metaphors from the natural world to convey the absolute centrality and necessity of human connection.
On Sin and Goodness
But still, he can’t let go of the issue for himself – blame and innocence, sin and goodness weave their way through the album.
- Temptation is an explicit link between Treaty and On The Level. And yet at his age, he now has tamed ‘the wretched beast’ of ‘needing a lover’ in Leaving the table.
- And this, in turn, ties brilliantly in with You want it Darker as he resists the temptation to what is presumably one of the middle-class sins he has so often indulged in (and about which the religious so often moralise).
- This is the genius of the title track – one of the album’s best, and in fact, one of the most theologically thoughtful and provocative new songs I’ve heard for an age. For he’s addressing God after the experience of decades of life and knowledge of human history. The record really does seem to prove that the most appalling ‘sins’ are somehow acceptable, that’ I had permission to murder and to maim.’ God is the one that wants it darker, he says. Or at least that’s the way it seems. He clearly allows people to get away with them. Or more specifically, religious people to get away with them.
On God … and Yeshua…?
But the album is suffused with God. Musically it feels Jewish from the opening bars – and of course, the Hineni is sung by a superlative synagogue cantor in You want it Darker, So it’s entirely appropriate to hear from the former UK Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks in a brilliant take on that song.
I would never have been able to spot the Abraham and Isaac resonances myself, without Sacks’s insights. It fits brilliantly. And I’ve found the song even more compelling as a result – I have even spotted that it is chiastic in structure, which will obviously warm the cockles of every scholar of the Jewish Scriptures.
But there’s a glaring omission – he doesn’t touch on one of its most startling theological statements
Magnified and sanctified Be Thy Holy Name
Vilified and crucified In the human frame
For all the song’s obvious Jewishness, this can only refer to the Jewish Messiah. But this is no unalloyed declaration of faith in him. For it is full of disappointment and even anger – as the next line shows: ‘A million candles burning for the help that never came.’ Where was he during the firing squad executions alluded to hear and the 8th track, Steer your way.?
The song which fleshes this pain out most explicitly is Treaty – and it is striking that this is the one reprised with a Dvorakesque string accompaniment at the end. Jesus is the one who turned water into wine – but weirdly, turns it back again. The song ranges across the scriptures (eg the serpent in Eden is baffled but its legacy is universal). Its thrust and pathos, though, is the longing for a treaty between God (even perhaps God in Christ) and himself. The lack of one is what makes him ‘angry and I’m tired all the time.’ Which is a painful irony – because, of course, that is more or less precisely what the Jewish covenant is… and the new covenant in Christ’s blood. Had he committed too many middle-class sins to be acceptable? Was it too far to travel for a Jewish Buddhist monk to come to the Christian Gentile God (for all his Jewishness)? Or is it because he himself ‘had gone’ or an invented ‘ghost’ who was never real? Hence no help. The song is agonised – but so real and so full of regrets.
Seemed the Better Way fills in the gaps on this a bit. It explains his attraction to Christ (the first Christians were known as followers of the Way, after all – hence it gets capitalised in Steer Your Way) – it seemed the better way, the truth. But he doesn’t seem like that now. And yet – he still takes the communion cup, the wine turned into blood. He still tries to say the grace. And the thought occurs to me that the object of If I Didn’t Have Your Love is not even a lover at all – or at least not only a lover. Like U2 does so often to name but one, human love is a window into divine love – for all the doubts, anger and exhaustion, this is what makes the sun shine? God’s love does that. C S Lewis nailed:
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
Perhaps I’m really over-egging the pudding now. Seeing Jesus lurking behind every bush and light-permitting crack? No. But I do think he’s hard to miss here in these songs:
- You want it darker
- Leaving the table
- Seemed the better way
- Steer your way
- and possibly If I didn’t have your love
6 out of 8 – plus the Treaty reprise. That’s quite the proportion! I’ll pull it all tight in the next blog post – but I think this fab quote from Cohen helps to make precisely the point of this album – and indeed his artistic legacy. The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say “Look, I don’t understand a f***** thing at all – Hallelujah!