There’s a moment on Leonard Cohen’s 14th album You Want It Darker when, on the closing track ‘String Reprise/Treaty’, Cohen takes his last breath and leaves this Earth, his body lying vacant in the light. This is an album that plunges deep into the murky recesses of a relic’s heart.
There is no reconciliation, or rampant lust, or cradling lovers, as seen before. Cohen’s hand, outstretched and cigarette-adorned in the album’s cover, is searching for his maker. We killed his flame.
On his 2014 album Popular Problems, Cohen warned his cult that he’s “slowing down the tune”. Here, the tune is so slow that it practically crawls past you, dragging its hideous beauty down into the darkness. Cohen’s frequent collaborator, Sharon Robinson, is nowhere to be found, and neither are Cohen’s usual cohort of female voices, “turned my back on the angels”, as he grimaces in ‘On the Level’. Everything is as stripped back as can be, with only a few restrained guitar lines and violins left wandering alone.
Instead, this quiet masterpiece is a shuttling conversation between darkened, shimmering frames. Here is Cohen on ‘Treaty’, contemplating about the serpent who was “baffled by his sin” in a postlapsarian paradise. Hot gypsy nights sweep us into ‘Traveling Light’, supported by a minimal choir and a solitary flamenco guitar. ‘Steer Your Way’ plays like an ascension of the tower of wisdom, Cohen urging you to look “through the fables/Of creation and the fall”. There’s a venomous triumph in the way he delivers this line; he’s challenging whatever he’s about to face, undeterred by fear.
Down the river he goes until there’s nowhere left to go, no street left to help validate his wandering existence. There’s an obvious level of finality to these lyrics, maybe not unusual for a legend such as Cohen, but still startling in their definitiveness. It’s in the “I’m ready, my Lord” he announces on the title track, and in the “au revoir” he murmurs on ‘Traveling Light’. Cohen’s voice and the music collectively swoon as he waits in the dark “for the love that never came”.
In 1967, Cohen requested a lover to “walk me to the corner” in ‘Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’, in You Want It Darker, he’s ready to “take my place”. Whispering over luscious strings in the album’s conclusion, and with clairvoyance in his eyes, Leonard Cohen is finally ready to depart alone.