Leonard Cohen makes death sound breezy in You Want It Darker

You Want It Darker is the 14th album of Leonard Cohen (above).
You Want It Darker is the 14th album of Leonard Cohen (above). PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE

This much is true: If Leonard Cohen were a rookie on the singing contest, The Voice, it is likely not a single chair would have turned for him.

That is the cruel reality the octogenarian would probably enjoy. Judging from his 14th album, teasingly titled You Want It Darker, he has made a career of deflating expectations. Yet, it is that unmistakable mordant drone of his that distinguishes him from the mob of over-singing, over- styled poppets churned out via Simon Cowell Factory's conveyor belt.

At 82, Cohen is no longer afraid of death and his plain speaking, spoken next to your ear, and stately against sparse instrumentation, tells it like it is. If anything, the unflashy approach has a levity that, surprisingly, relieves death of its barbed-wire halo.

Death is merely another stage of life, Cohen appears to say, and he makes it sound so... What is the word? Yes, breezy.



    Leonard Cohen


    4/5 stars

The title track is a gentle jab at his devotees who hunger for more unremitting material from the minstrel. Accompanied by Quebec's Congregation Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir, which shadows him like the wintry winds of fate, Cohen intones the chorus, "Hineni Hineni" (Hebrew for "Here I am"), before ending with "I'm ready, my Lord".

Glimpse the twinkle in his eye. The song is both riposte and good humour as you sway in rhythm to plump bass-guitar plucks and choir coos, as if stuck in a Woody Allen film.

Leaving The Table has the romantic fatalism of a late-night blues ballad. Life is a gamble and he has given up trying to fight a young man's game. "I'm out of the game/I don't know the people/In your picture frame," he declares, as the electric riffs moan and someone softly hits the drums.

"I don't need a lover/The wretched beast is tame," he adds, which still comes as a shock, considering it comes from someone once known as a ladies' man.

He says goodbye to one of his muses, Marianne Ihlen, who died aged 81 in July, in Traveling Light. "Goodnight, goodnight/My fallen star... It's au revoir," sings Cohen, recalling paradisiacal days in the early 1960s when he met the Norwegian blonde on the Greek island of Hydra.

The setting is a taverna, closing time, him reliving the memory in the afterglow. The tender strings of bouzouki and violin caress.

He is taking stock of his life, settling old scores and rueing a few regrets. In Treaty, he sings: "I wish there was a treaty we could sign/I do not care who takes this bloody hill" - one of numerous pitch-perfect couplets on the album.

The piano plinks at its own pace, the strings swell in wave after wave and Cohen apologises for any myth- making. "I'm so sorry for the ghost I made you be/Only one of us was real - and that was me," goes one excellent counterpoint.

Is he having a conversation with God or a former paramour? Therein lies the gnomic beauty of his art. His delivery is so terse, it will take a lifetime, and the lifetime after that, to unravel the wisdom that resides within.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2016, with the headline Leonard Cohen makes death sound breezy in You Want It Darker . Subscribe