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Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker

01/11/2016 13:50

When do we make the transition from childhood to adulthood? Is it when we turn sixteen? Eighteen? Twenty-one? On most airlines you're considered an adult passenger from twelve, whilst some Scandinavian bars consider anyone under the age of twenty-five, no matter how educated or successful, to be too immature to be permitted entry. These supposed milestones of maturity are of course completely arbitrary; after all, we find people in their twenties and thirties and even presidential candidates behaving like children, and teenagers who act like exemplary adult citizens. But I think I've come up with the most accurate indicator of whether someone is a grown up, and it's all to do with Leonard Cohen.

Leonard Cohen is an artist for adults. Though children who grow up listening to their parents' music may learn to love The Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan etc, you can't really imagine any of them singing along to Suzanne or Chelsea Hotel No.2. That's because, and I say this from experience, Leonard Cohen is boring to listen to as a kid. His voice is monotonous, his songs are quiet and his lyrics are bleak and the opposite of catchy. But then, when you've reached a certain level of maturity, there comes a point where it all makes sense. Leonard Cohen stops being that dreary droning guy in your parents' car, but an inspired songwriter, a brooding poet, a cynical, sensitive genius. And at whatever age you have that realisation, that's when you've started to become an adult.

It's a fairly common truism that all literature is about sex or death (except for erotic fiction, which to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, is about making money). These are obviously two very grown up themes, and it's hard to think of another writer as invested in the synthesis of Eros and Thanatos as Leonard Cohen. His beautifully poignant letter to his muse Marianne Ihlen (of So Long Marianne fame) written before she passed away in July, is a perfect example of Cohen's unique gift for confronting mortality without hopeless morbidity. The final line in particular: 'endless love, see you down the road', is so simple yet conveys so much as Cohen reminds Marianne, and us, of the eternity of love in the face of imminent, inevitable death.

Just two weeks ago, Cohen, told the New Yorker that he felt that he was ready to die. But if anyone could live for ever, as he later clarified he intends to do, it would be Leonard Cohen. Now eighty-two, Cohen is enjoying a new wave of success having released his third album in four years, You Want It Darker, to universal critical acclaim. Quite how it's possible to get any darker than the standout track from 2014's Popular Problems, Nevermind, with lyrics such as "I had to leave my life behind, I've dug some graves you'll never find", I have no idea, but somehow Cohen manages it.

You Want It Darker is slow and sombre. As with Johnny Cash, Cohen's voice seems to have gotten better and better with age. His vocals have always been an acquired taste, but his earlier work sounds almost reedy in comparison to the baritone growling that we now associate with Cohen. For me, Cohen has the most compelling voice of any musician in the world. It's filled with unmatched experience, with wisdom and profundity. He has become not so much a singer as a storyteller, his deep, rich voice guiding us through tales and meditations on love, death, regret, loneliness, loss and faith.

The title track will surely go down as one of Cohen's very best. With its fusion of a haunting synagogue choir and persistent drum beat, this bold opening serves to remind us that Cohen is still experimenting, still trying new styles without losing the essence of the unmistakable Leonard Cohen sound. As you'd expect from Cohen the lyrics are engrossing and enigmatic: "I struggled with some demons they were middle class and tame, I didn't know I had permission to murder and to maim", perhaps the best of the lot.

Though the entire album is a triumph, the final four songs, along with the titular opening are simply exceptional. Traveling Light is a classic Leonard Cohen song, complete with nylon stringed guitar and the backing of harmonious female voice to complement Cohen's own. And as so many great Cohen songs are, it's yearning and apologetic: "I'm just a fool, a dreamer who forgot to dream of the me and you". It Seemed the Better Way, accompanied by a wailing violin is a lament about the incongruity of unconditional Christian love in a cold modern world ("It sounded like the truth, It seemed the better way, It sounded like the truth, But it's not the truth today"), and I'm struggling to think of a more sorrowful song that Cohen has written.

Steer Your Way, like the song before, seems to be about a waning spirituality in a post-religious world, but is rather oddly backed by a violin refrain that wouldn't be out of place in a country song. Amazingly it works. The final track, String Reprise/ Treaty is almost entirely instrumental except for some lines repeated from the second song on the album; it serves as a nice reminder that Cohen is not just a poet talking to music, but an excellent composer in his own right.

Last week I wrote in defence of Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Whilst Dylan has failed to say anything in acknowledgment of this award, it was his friend Leonard Cohen who so pithily noted that giving the Nobel to Bob Dylan for Literature was "like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain". It's quite telling that it is Cohen who has exhibited his way with words whilst the new Nobel Laureate remains silent. Although Dylan certainly merited his award, it was more for the legacy of his body of work, after all, he has not produced much of true greatness (barring Things Have Changed) since the 1970s. You Want It Darker, by contrast, is all the proof you need that Leonard Cohen is still relevant, and still has so much to offer.

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