The Deadly Certainty of Leonard Cohen

You Want It Darker gravely and beautifully accepts God and mortality.

The cover of Leonard Cohen's "You Want It Darker"
Sony Music

Written down, the words “you want it darker” could read like a question or an accusation. From Leonard Cohen, they’re a simple statement of fact, no judgement implied. You might say he delivers the title of his album and its opening track in a mutter if Cohen’s voice were capable of a mutter—82 years of living have weathered his instrument into something wholly unique and whose low, low rumble makes every word into a pronouncement. The “you” who wants it darker is God, and Cohen’s figured out his plan.

This feeling of certainty, of total unwavering authority, makes Cohen’s You Want It Darker, out on Friday but streaming at NPR now, a riveting experience. When it comes to the weightiest issues of human existence, he’s past the point of questioning, and whether any listener is equipped to fully understand or accept the answers Cohen’s armed with is not his concern.

The bulk of pre-release publicity around Cohen’s 14th album has come from a lengthy New Yorker profile by David Remnick, who quoted Cohen as saying he’s “ready to die.” You Want It Darker does nothing to dispel the seriousness of that statement, and listening to it induces a kind of solemn awe at the fullness of his acceptance. “I’m ready, my lord,” he says in the masterful first song as a bass line seems to mirror the movement of dread in the gut. The occasional touches of a dance groove or modern-seeming synthesizers of his other recent albums are not to be found; You Want It Darker is all carefully unfolding, impeccably produced, and out-of-time gospel and folk, over which Cohen patiently explains himself.

Not for the first time, God appears to be the subject of most of Cohen’s observations, and the two entities don’t exactly seem to be on happy terms. Cohen isn’t so much having a crisis of faith as a grim reckoning with the universe’s cruelty and deceit: “I didn't know I had permission to murder and to maim,” he sings on the opener, a litany of sins by the almighty. Later, amid choral humming and a lonely violin line on “Seen the Better Way,” he confesses to a compromised but still extant spirituality: “I better hold my tongue, I better take my place / Lift this glass of blood, try to say the grace.” It’s a hallelujah, more broken than ever.

Yet, as has also frequently been the case in Cohen’s career, his holy “you” can also be read as a human one. For “Treaty,” whose melodic peaks and valleys are so poignant that the album’s final song is a string reprise of them, Cohen makes an apology of devastating frankness to a lost lover. The song is also an example of his gift for surprise; because his phrasings have you hanging on every word, he’s able to induce mood swings in the space of a verse. At some points, cheery piano chords accompany him describing celebration in the streets, but then: “I’m sorry for the ghost I made you be. Only one of us was real”—beat, beat, beat—“and that was me.”

After a life of singing about vice, Cohen now wrings drama from the ebbing of lust. Remnick’s profile delved into the years-long spiritual sabbaticals Cohen has taken; when in “On the Level” he sings, “Now I'm living in this temple / Where they tell you what to do,” he may well be describing a memory. But he also might be describing his current state of mind:

I'm old and I've had to settle
On a different point of view
I was fighting with temptation
But I didn't want to win
A man like me don't like to see
Temptation caving in

How sublime are those last four lines’ portrayal of temptation as an beloved rival? The underlying music is a classic Muscle Shoals ballad template, all warm organs and exultant backing vocals. It’s the sound of peace, begrudging and battered though it may be.

There are other such spots of brightness, though Cohen’s voice retains its crushing gravity throughout. The most disarming moment comes on “If I Didn’t Have Your Love,” which is as close to a lullaby as Cohen can come at this point in his career. He describes, with perfect vividness, what would happen to his life without a certain someone’s affection—it would be as if “a cold and bitter wind swallowed up the world without a trace” or as if “the break of day had nothing to reveal.” Whether that life-giving someone is God or human isn’t quite clear to the listener, but it’s obvious that Cohen himself has no doubt who he’s talking to.