Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want it Darker’ inspires beyond the grave

by Madison Wilson | 2/14/19 2:29am

We are so concerned with what is new and exciting in music that we often forget the artists we’ve lost, the artists that even from the grave figure prominently in our collective imagination. Big names have died in the last few years — Tom Petty, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin — and it feels like time is running out for the musicians who inspired popular music today. Leonard Cohen is one such artist. Cohen passed away in November 2016 at 83, but still inspires people with his not-quite-music-not-quite-spoken-word pieces years later. 

Cohen is well known for his hits like “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah,” but I’ve always felt deeply connected to his final album, “You Want it Darker.” Released 19 days before Cohen’s death, there’s a cheerful sadness running through the work. I remember listening to “You Want it Darker” while running in the New Hampshire forest, wondering if Cohen believed in God or despised him, or both. The artist had died a year before, but I felt his presence through his music. I wondered at my own relationship to God, life and death. I think it’s telling that a teenage girl, struggling to adjust to college and a new way of life, could find solace in the final work of a dead man. I’m not sure if it’s Cohen’s reckoning with faith and God or his disaffection with mortality that makes the message so universal. How should we examine the final work of a man who knew he was going to die? 

Cohen wrote and produced the album in his living room, crippled by constant spinal fractures and unable to leave his home . Death was imminent. While the work is gloomy, it isn’t depressing or fatalistic. He meditates on God and death with a characteristic wry humor unique to someone who knew death was coming. 

In the title and opening track, “You Want it Darker,” Cohen juxtaposes a Gregorian chant-like opening with choral rapture (“Heneni, heneni”). The song meditates on the human versus the divine, where if God is “magnified, sanctified” then the human is “vilified, crucified.” Cohen establishes a series of binaries, symbolized by the see-saw between gloomy chant and raucous violin. This is the “paradox”: humans will never achieve perfection, except maybe in death. Perhaps this is why Cohen is “ready, My Lord” — ready for death and ready to find clarity. 

“Treaty” shows that Cohen is not entirely at peace with his God — “I’m angry and I’m tired all the time” — he wishes there were a treaty, some way to simplify faith and love. I wonder if he yearned for clarity but knew he would not find it. 

In “On the Level,” Cohen croons, “I was fighting with temptation, but I didn’t want to win.” His relationship with God feels hedonistic yet real, a fervent celebration of faith. Cohen rejoices in his own flaws and exchanges puritanical self-hatred for self-acceptance. Seeing death always on the horizon brought Cohen to terms with human mortality and frailty and showed him some truth about life that those who listen to his music can only paw at. Then he says, “They ought to give my heart a medal for getting over you.” At first I thought “you” was a woman. Then I thought, is “you” God? Or perfection? There is beauty in not knowing. 

“Leaving The Table” contemplates the kind of clearheaded apathy that comes with old age and a life lived fully. In a New Yorker interview a month before his death, Cohen said, “At a certain point ... you have a chance to put your house in order.” I believe Cohen was not only talking about his family, but his own self — now he had the time to sort through himself and put himself in order. Yet, in “If I Didn’t Have Your Love,” he realizes that life has no meaning without faith. For my generation, steeped in nihilism, this message is particularly potent. 

“Traveling Light” is somewhat humorous and joyful, shedding a heavy burden and enjoying the community of fellow travelers. Like the rest of the album, we can interpret this in many ways — has Cohen lost his religion? His ties to mortality? — but the beauty of this work is its mutability, that each time I listen I find some new meaning. “It Seemed the Better Way” again speaks of faith but with a removed weariness. Cohen writes with a self-aware confusion — is he a slave to God, or liberated by it? Are atheism and nihilism freeing, or simply another form of chains? The work is full of contradictions that I still grapple with, years after first listening. 

The whole album is like a short journey following Cohen putting his own house in order before moving on to a new adventure. However, Cohen’s death brings up some questions: is it right to interpret “You Want it Darker” under the lens of Cohen’s death? Or should we ignore this fact and listen to the work divorced from its artist? Art will always outlast the artist. How do we listen to music after the creator is gone? 

When Marianne Ihlen, Cohen’s longtime lover and friend, was on her deathbed, Cohen wrote in a final letter: “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. ” Those who listen to Cohen’s final work feel his hand stretching, too. Cohen’s looming mortality has always defined his music, but far from the “godfather of gloom” of common description, his sense of his own mortality is romantic and comforting. Perhaps death is not so scary, but rather feels like a hand reaching out to welcome us into the next stage.