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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 27 May 2018

Album review: You Want It Darker is the sound of Leonard Cohen looking life squarely in the eye

There's notably no question mark closing the title of Leonard Cohen's 14th album. The Canadian songwriter is not asking his listeners, but telling them – You Want It Darker.

You Want It Darker by Leonard Cohen. Courtesy Columbia Records
You Want It Darker by Leonard Cohen. Courtesy Columbia Records

You Want It Darker

Leonard Cohen

(Columbia)

Three-and-a-half stars

There is, notably, no question mark after the title of Leonard Cohen’s 14th album. The Canadian songwriter is not asking his listeners, but telling them – You Want It Darker. In his 83rd year, Cohen knows the self-­masochistic tendencies of his fans well, but whether they want it this way or not, it sounds like Cohen himself willing things to blacker hues. At the twilight of his life, this is a man writing for no one but himself.

“If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game,” begins the opening title track, setting the tone of fragile mortality that weighs on this studied cycle of quiet rage. “I’m ready, my Lord,” the chorus ends. Speaking, not singing, Cohen’s hoarse, time-ravaged, voice intones intently over cold, metallic beats and a haunting choir of voices, the mood somewhere between invocation, and resignation.

This is the sound of a man, looking life squarely in the eye, a life that has refused to go out quietly, whatever its author’s wishes. After 15 years away from the stage – during which he embraced Zen Buddhism – Cohen spent much of the 2008-2013 period on tour, re-earning the millions a manager had swindled from him. Of the five albums he has released in the past quarter-­century, three have come in the past five years.

The sense of score settling is unavoidable.

“I don’t need a reason / For what I became / I’ve got these excuses / They’re old and they’re lame,” sings Cohen on Leaving the Table, another clear reference to expiration (“I’m leaving the table / I’m out of the game”).

This song’s lazy, Americana twang might recall latter-day Dylan, the wordsmith Cohen is most often compared with. Arguably, Cohen has a greater right to the Nobel – he started as a writer, only turning to music in his 30s to widen his audience, and has published numerous books of poetry, and two novels.

As with all his work, You Want It Darker’s music plays second fiddle, little more than framing devices for Cohen’s verse. This muted canvas makes subtle, empathetic shifts, the title track’s cold, hymnal solemnity balanced by the lumpen soft rock of On the Level and the acoustic Mediterranean lilt of Travelling Light.

Despite its slight runtime, one emerges from these 36 minutes of music with a sense of coming up for air – the pleasures here are strictly cerebral.

“I’m angry and I’m tired all the time,” moans Cohen on Treaty, a confession directed either at a lost lover or the almighty himself, which also closes the record – and perhaps Cohen’s recorded oeuvre – in a stark, string-led reprise.

rgarratt@thenational.ae