The voice comes as we’ve heard it over the last 20 years—a deep gravel, almost impossibly low, and barely singing. It’s more like the singsong speech of a man hanging out under a lamppost, barely lit against the darkness, trying to tell you something with insistent urgency. It is, of course, Leonard Cohen—unmistakable from the first gravely note of his voice, imbued with ancient wisdom, rueful sadness, and endless wit. It’s less an aging voice than a voice of age.
But aging he is. At 82, Leonard Cohen has released a new album, You Want it Darker, a name which manages to be both deadly serious and tongue-in-cheek. He is a man who knows his reputation as being the poet of endless sorrows, and neither shies away from it nor hesitates to poke fun of it. The whole album is infused with that life, with his life, as an endlessly peripatetic wanderer.
Maybe most of all, in his later albums, he is a man of memory. You Want It Darker is the writing of a man who is thinking about the losses and the regrets he might have had—but mostly the joy of having been alive to love. It’s a profound album about aging, and about who you are as you reach the end. It’s an inspirational album by someone who has lived a thousand lives, and wants to reflect on them. It’s an album that any older adult can listen to, and recognize not just the harmonies, but the very rhythms of aging.
The Places Where He Used to Play: Leonard Cohen and Wry Dissolution
In 1988’s classic album I’m Your Man, Cohen opens the beautiful “Tower of Song” with these lyrics:
Well my friends are gone and my hair is gray
I ache in the places where I used to play
Cohen had barely passed 50 when he wrote this song, but he seemed much older. He was already aging when he became a famous musician, with 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen, once a poet and novelist of some note, before turning his hand to songwriting.
Instantly, his was a different voice. In that time of tumult and revolution, he told smaller love stories that seemed to ache with the memory of cold Montreal streets, of lovers parting after too many betrayals and broken sunrises. They were sparse and hauntingly melodic, filled with religious images, (listen in the above-linked “The Stranger” how the dealer turns into an ancient gambler, and then a “Joseph looking for a manger,” and then into every stranger), but in a way that was strangely respectful and learned for the time.
He was always singing his songs of memories and regret, but that were still infused with hopefulness. He always believed in the power of love, or at least a dawning affection, to rise above the muck of the world. He was a wry sensualist, a man who railed quietly against the violence of the world, and who never forgot that horror could lurk around the corner (his Jewish heritage and post-war upbringing made him wary of the revolutions his peers embraced). But there was a way around it, and it was love, even if love could be doomed.
And that was him as a young man. As he got older, though, he began to draw into himself. He made less music, and spent years in a Buddhist monastery. And then, about 10 years ago, in his 70s, he had one of the most inspiring renaissances of our time.
Cohen’s Comeback Renaissance
In 2008, Cohen decided to go on tour. It had been several years since he had really toured, and, except for smaller gigs, rarely played. This tour was to be different. This was a 76-yr-old embracing his long and strange career, and giving a gift to everyone who loved him.
Cohen was on tour for nearly five straight years, until 2013. His shows were large; he’d play for hours. He’d sit at times, and talk with the crowd, telling jokes and stories, but most of it was music.
He was smaller than people remembered, his hair gone gray and his voice not as melodic—more like a desert prophet come into an arena. But he didn’t seem to ache. He seemed to come alive with his songs, with his memories, with the connections that he had forged through his gifts of music in his tower of song.
On this tour, Cohen showed again that you never have to stop exploring. He never had to settle down into age, or parody, or bitterness. He kept writing, kept thinking about life, kept exploring his talents, and finding new expressions for his voice.
It’s easy now to forget that in the early days, his voice was almost thin, like a guitar string being plucked in a hollow soundscape. It’s very different now, but he didn’t try to cling to it. He adjusted, and found new expressions in his new range. That’s a lesson we can all learn.
The Farewell, and Non-farewell
In a recent New Yorker, David Remnick had a long article about Cohen, with whom he spent a lot of time. It became talked about because of something Cohen said. Here’s the quote in full, prompted by a reference to a song he was writing:
“I don’t think I’ll be able to finish those songs. Maybe, who knows? And maybe I’ll get a second wind, I don’t know. But I don’t dare attach myself to a spiritual strategy. I don’t dare do that. I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”
This, of course, was taken that he was about to die. In a way, that is a blessing, maybe. Maybe, we thought, this was a farewell album, and at least we were able to appreciate it. At least we are able to listen to it, and say goodbye to Leonard Cohen in a way that we weren’t with David Bowie.
Maybe the album is his goodbye to all of us, to the world. As he sings in “Traveling Light”:
I’m traveling light
It’s au revoir
My once so bright
My fallen star
I’m running late
They’ll close the bar
I used to play
One mean guitar.
Or, in the title track, singing partly in Hebrew and translating:
I’m ready, my lord
But maybe there is another way. After all, “ready” doesn’t mean “on the cusp of;” nor does it mean wrapping death in his embrace. It just means a sense of peace. It means he can look back on a life and be happy, and be content, even if he is fundamentally discontent, as poets often are.
You Want It Darker isn’t just about being ready. It takes in the world, and the paradox of our desire for peace with the cruel violence we encounter, our wanting for love with our capacity for hate—and, as always, Cohen casts himself not as the observer, but as a participant. His music is still engaged with the world, even if the singer seems ready to leave.
That is the way Cohen seems to be looking at the world. He’s still looking at the wreckage of romance (“We sold ourselves for love but now we’re free/I’m so sorry for that ghost I made you be/Only one of us was real and that was me”). He’s still pondering the mysteries of aging, and how it changes us (“I don’t need a lover/that wretched beast is tame/I don’t need a lover/So blow out the flame”). He’s still looking at the world through his sad and haunted eyes.
So I don’t think it is saying goodbye. He’s just saying, maybe this is goodbye. Maybe it isn’t. We don’t have the answer to all the mysteries, and we barely have the questions. So as long as we’re still here, let’s talk. Let’s remember. Let’s continue to explore these questions that trouble us when we’re young, and still gnaw at us when we’re old. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the idea that we are who we are, immutable.
The deep voice is the same one that plied Montreal streets, and found love on Greek Islands. The body is the same one that once knew Janis Joplin in the Chelsea Hotel. The heart is the same one that famously cried, “So Long, Marianne”, a sad and joyful parting to his muse, who herself died earlier this year. He told her it was time to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again. That’s the heart of his music. We suffer, and then we remember our suffering with fondness, because it is something that happened to our souls, simply from being alive.
This wild and impossible life is his main target of inquisition, and, like always, he’ll interrogate it until he can no longer. If we’re looking for inspiration as we grow older, and the strength to still be awake and alive in the world, Cohen can answer as he has so many times: I’m your man.