The Best Albums of 2016, #3

band013. Leonard Cohen, You Want it Darker (Sony)

A couple years ago I was having a conversation with a friend about whose musician’s death would affect me the most. After some thinking I mentioned Leonard Cohen, because his songwriting has had a major impact on my life as a music listener since the early-‘90s. In fact, the older I get, the deeper understanding I develop for his music and poetry. What captivated me as a 21 year-old often differs from what enthralls me at 46. It’s the kind of relationship (as a listener) with an artist that is unlike any other in my life, to the point where the two times I was lucky enough to see the man perform, in 2009 and 2012, were, for lack of a better word, spiritual experiences. Prior to the release of his 14th album Cohen told The New Yorker that he was ready to die, and that blunt admission sent many of us scurrying back to that album’s title track, which had just been released a few weeks earlier. “Hineni, hineni,” he sings gravely, intoning the ancient Hebrew word for “here I am”. “I’m ready Lord.” What already was Cohen’s bleakest song since his 1992 masterpiece The Future became all the more powerful thanks to that published statement. He was frail, living quietly, his greatest muse had died earlier in the year, and the article made it seem he was mentally preparing himself for the end. The end came sooner than expected, barely a couple weeks after the album was released to universal critical acclaim.

When the news came out, three days after his death and two days after the calamitous American election, I didn’t fall into flamboyant paroxysms of despair like plenty of people did. I think the fact that he gave us one final gift in the form of a perfect little album cushioned the blow. Although his “comeback” albums Old Ideas and Popular Problems were lovely, there’s a greater sense of focus on You Want it Darker, honed to a sharpened point. Cohen is confronting his own mortality, but doing so in that way that only he can do: with darkness, with humour, and with tenderness. His lyrics dance around love and loss and death and life with nimble grace. On “Treaty” is he singing about the conflict between his Jewish upbringing and his Buddhist faith in later life? Or is he trying to reconcile with past lovers? He’s often too vague to make either a certainty, and that sense of mystery makes this little 36-minute album so alluring. Best of all, that voice of his, that deep, smoky voice, sounds indefatigable and wise, like an old master should sound, and his singing hits powerful noted on the mid-album trifecta of “Leaving the Table”, “If I Didn’t Have Your Love”, and the sweetly playful “Traveling Light”, the latter of which hearkens back to three different decades of his music at the same time.

Why be sad about Leonard Cohen’s death? He lived a full, uncompromising life and influenced music and literature in a way that very few people ever will. What an achievement that is. You Want it Darker is the final majestic crenellation on a mighty, incomparable tower of song. I’ll keep celebrating his work for the rest of my life, always climbing that tower, discovering new things about the man, and my own self.