Leonard Cohen: A Singing Poet

Listening to Leonard Cohen’s new album is an entirely immersive experience. It feels like sitting at the entrance of the church in a warm central square, somewhere where people bring chairs onto the street to sit and talk whilst children squeal around them. There’s a gorgeous contrast between the deeply reverent, marble cool which surrounds your back, and the warming heat of the sun on your toes. There’s a wholesome silence, and a vivacious buzz. Released so close to his death, a lot of reviews of You Want It Darker view the album through the pall of mortality, taking every mournful twang of the guitar and every melancholic boom of Cohen’s baritone as an insight into his thoughts on mortality. This may well be, but it detracts from a brooding musical masterpiece, and poetical lyrics to match. What many don’t realise is that Cohen didn’t embark on his musical career until the age of 33, having made his name as a published poet prior to this: often overlooked, his poetry provides a suitable companion by which to look at You Want It Darker.

What a man...what a hat

Rising out from the backdrop of the monastic hum of a cantor male choir, Cohen’s gravelly, opening hello is a series of defiant statements: “If you are the dealer / I’m out of the game / If you are the healer / I’m broken and lame / If thine is the glory / Mine must be the shame”. The deep voice somehow evokes the comfort of a father figure and the sultry danger of a lover at the same time. There’s an anger and a force there that isn’t present in his earlier poem, ‘Now In My Room’. Composed in a zen monastery, it describes a spiritual breakthrough:

O my love
I found You again
I went out
for a pack of cigarettes
and there You were
I lost myself
in the eyes of a dog
who loved You
The heat lifted me up
The traffic bounced me
naked into bed
with a book about You
and a bottle of cold water

The lines are clear and simple, likening inner peace to the pure sensation of drinking cold water. They are starkly different to the overtly disenchanted religious fervour in the opening lines of ‘You Want It Darker’.  

The contrast of this carefree voice deepens as You Want It Darker continues. In ‘Steer Your Way’, the penultimate track on the album, Cohen is fearfully moody as bluegrass-esque strings accompany his warnings: ‘Steer away past the ruins / Of the altar in the mall / Steer away through the fables / Of creation and the fall / Steer away past the palaces / That rise above the rot”. A lilting string fugue and breathy female voices join to create an energetic warning against the emptiness of the modern world: “As he died to make men holy / Let us die to make things cheap”. And yet, it is not a pessimistic album. There is a sense of resolve and harmony in ‘Travelling Light’, where the flamenco inspired accompaniment to his independent, gruff assertions remind us of his poem ‘You’d Sing Too’:

You’d sing
not for yourself
but to make a self
out of the old food
rotting in the astral bowel
and the loveless thud
of your own breathing

After a lifetime of reflection, Cohen has built on the fleshy imagery of ‘You’d Sing Too’, and the need for understanding and loving oneself. As he murmurs in ‘Leaving The Table’, “I don’t need a lover / So blow out the flame”. Certainly, Cohen’s voice is lover enough for anyone. You Want It Darker is a baring of a soul, a personal album which refreshes and engages the listener in a way few still do. It is soulful and spiritual – the musical accompaniment from his talented son Adam religiously draws the listener in to Cohen’s deep, pooling voice. It is completely seductive and tirelessly sexy, even though noticeably devoid of carnal desire or erotic lust. It is truly a masterpiece, a bottomless exploration of music and the individual, and does justice to the overwhelming talent of Leonard Cohen, poet and singer...sleep well the Rat Pack Rabbi.

Words by: Antonia