Sound Takes: You Want it Darker
You Want it Darker (Columbia)
Some things are hard to write about—forget even speaking about them. Actually, forget just talking to one another: some things are flat out impossible to express, even among all of us living beings. We are incapable, in so many ways, of talking about the spectres which haunt us. It’s pure, simple, repression, the idea that to move forward, you have to push down these spectres because they can overwhelm you, or worse, keep you from moving forward. Friedrich Hölderlin nailed the question of naming these spectres pretty well: “What is a poet for in a destitute time?” Martin Heidegger, more than a century later, decided the task of poets is to look into the abyss, to reach back from it for the other living beings, and to do this thankless job because without the resulting words no one else can and continue to move forward with their lives. I’m not convinced poets are the only ones who can do this, but here we’ll forgive Hölderlin and Heidegger as they had not experienced contemporary pop music.
We are always in a destitute time. Life is always a crisis—a moment of terror followed by more terror and eventually trauma that we are constantly attempting to navigate so that we can move forward. Move forward to what, though? The largest spectre that looms before us is death, the end, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, of everything, at least for the individual being. What survives is our work, in whatever form, and memory, but these things fade too. There’s a cliché about dying again once you’re forgotten, though there are a handful of folks who have never been forgotten, even by time.
Whether the work and life of Leonard Cohen will be remembered in fifty, one hundred, or five hundred years, I have no idea. In an era where every mundane thing gets labeled G.O.A.T. by every non-authority, I don’t want to overstep and say Cohen is someone greater than others. I guess it doesn’t matter that much to anyone reading this because it’s not our problem. What I do know is this: for our moment, for our time, Leonard Cohen looked into the deepest abyss of the self and reached back for all of us.
It’s not fun to talk about death. None of us want to consider a world without ourselves, or worse, without someone we love or look up to. That’s alright: you’re not supposed to because you have to get up in the morning and go to work and keep with the grand task of moving forward so that there is a world beyond us, one to inherit one day by someone who you’ll never meet, whose experiences will be so foreign to you that you might not recognize them as being like you.
But there is Leonard Cohen. I use the present tense because, even though he has died at age eighty-two, neither we nor him are done with one another. There are hard lessons about aging and dying and living on You Want It Darker that we’re not going to ever be done with until we either cure death or forget Leonard Cohen. At the moment, neither seems likely.
You Want It Darker isn’t a love letter to a woman, as so much of Cohen’s work has been—love a kind of abyss itself. You Want It Darker is a love letter to a Lord Cohen isn’t sure he believes in: “Only one of us was real and that was me,” he sings in “Treaty” the second track on the album. This belief is not a crucial distinction at the moment, however. If there is a Lord in the Leonard Cohen afterworld, he was ready to meet them. Much has already been written about the opening title track’s most fascinating word, “Hineni,” used by Abraham to tell his Lord that he was ready to kill his son to prove his faith. Now it is Cohen who is “here,” ready to do what needs to be done at the end of his life to move onto the last destination, his own death. “I’m ready, my Lord.”
I do not read these lyrics as suicidal; rather, Cohen was expressing that he was satisfied with the life he had and accepted that it will not continue in the same way. In the title track to his 1988 album I’m Your Man, Cohen sang “The beast won’t go to sleep.” This isn’t just sexual desire but also normal ambition, a desire to do and be in life. In contrast, on You Want It Darker’s “Leaving the Table,” Cohen sings “The wretched beast is tame.” This is the end—that desire is gone, that drive that kept him moving forward has not merely died off but reached its natural conclusion. “I’m out of the game,” he adds. Time has passed him by, to an extent. He couldn’t keep up if he wanted.
This acceptance seems so difficult for those of us still grappling with the looming end. This is good: don’t accept. “Keep on keepin’ on” our latest Nobel Laureate in Literature wrote in“Tangled Up in Blue” when he was in his mid-thirties. For Cohen though, those desires had ceased and it is difficult for those of us on some portion of the journey to understand that there comes a time to accept. This is not giving up; it’s peace.
But even at the end, Cohen can still beat out any other lyricist. “I wish there was a treaty / Between your love and mine,” he sings on “Treaty” and its reprise, which closes out the album. This, treaty isn’t between Cohen and a lover but between whatever deity, real or imagined, and himself. Love, though, overrides.
What Cohen has done so well his entire career is take the things we alienate ourselves from (our lust certainly on that list) and then give them back to us in new ways, through the beauty of his language and his willingness to be the one who explores those areas. He does this more than Dylan, Reed, Carol King, or Tupac. Cohen didn’t just write about death and fucking in songs like “I’m Your Man”: he showed us what these things are. While we alienate ourselves from these large spectres of life through repression, Cohen gives them back to us.
Cohen never steps away from the theme of death as a kind of love on You Want It Darker. On “Leaving the Table,” Cohen accepts not death but rather himself. “I don’t need a lover,” he understands at long last, either because his passion has gone away or because he has finally understood who he is on his own in this final work: “I don’t need a pardon / there’s no one left to blame.” While always honest, the young Cohen always seemed so torn against himself—his rationality against his desire—that when finally the desire is gone, he sees himself and his life and his work so clearly that the only step left is death.
As I get older, I am coming to understand myself too—the desire that drives me forward and the infinite repressions inside of me. When I first heard “Famous Blue Raincoat” as an unusually lonely teen, I began to see the ways in which I had alienated myself from love, from death, and turned that alien into an adult who, while loving and compassionate, cannot do for himself. I’m not going to pretend to be some tortured artist here, but that, through a sustained engagement with Cohen’s work, I can see the path to self-acceptance.
To discuss You Want It Darker without the context of Cohen’s death seem naive. Further, to discuss it here without the context of death in our lives generally seems like a denial of the lessons of the album. I had spent the weeks after the album’s release absorbing it before I decided to write about it. One weekend, foolishly, I sat for seventy-two hours in my apartment, nearly listening to the album on repeat and not opening the doors or seeing another being. While ill-advised, I lost myself in You Want It Darker, its raw musical forms, Cohen’s “sub-sonic” growl, and these lyrics that just cut right through the bullshit of being.
I was sitting at a memorial services for the poet C.D. Wright when my phone buzzed. While Richard Lee Johnson, who was performing for his old friend, changed guitars, I checked my phone and saw the news of Cohen’s passing. I showed my phone to my wife and knew not to say anything to the assembled mourners, save for my former classmate, who I knew loved Cohen at least as much as I did. In the moment where our grief could turn to joy, at long last, of having known C.D., it seemed somehow rude to introduce a new necessity of grief. I did not feel shock or anger at Cohen’s death, probably because of You Want It Darker. That C.D. had died suddenly ripped so many people in half, exposing raw our wounds, that Cohen’s death seemed a cheat: he had the luxury of readiness, of being able to make peace with his Lord, his audience, and himself. Where I was at the moment I heard of Cohen’s death is where I am now. Please I have all this work, all these lessons I can continue to teach myself and those whom I teach that will follow me. I am here.
You Want It Darker is a sustained engagement with an unknowable love at the end of a career which itself has been a sustained engagement with the meaning of love, the nature of desire itself, and with a lover or god. Modern healthcare technology provides us with the unusual luxury of our artists having an opportunity to say goodbye to us (here, I’m thinking of Bowie and Blackstar). When they can, we are privileged by the chance as they are for the ability to leave their body of work as they wish it to be. We will always be cheated in an era that obsesses over the artists more than the art. We will feel cheated when the artist missed the opportunity of the farewell work but I think we ought to be grateful when it does happen. We should be grateful that Cohen could see the ways in which his journey was concluding. We who are left are fortunate, at least for now.