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Review: Leonard Cohen returns with a masterful new album (Includes interview and first-hand account)

Leonard Cohen has a long and distinguished career. The Canadian poet, and sometime author, has produced fourteen studio albums since 1967, which have ranged from folk, to country and electronica. The music has been brought to life through many concerts, especially a series of celebrated tours between 2008 and 2013.

Cohen is now past the age where he will undertake a series of large production tours again. This does not mean, however, that his creative juices are evaporating. With a new album released today (‘You want It Darker‘), Cohen has produced another work of imaginative creativity.

The album follows on, in spirit and tone, from Cohen’s other two more recent releases. Titled “You Want It Darker”, it shares some themes of both “Old Ideas” and “Popular Problems” in lamenting on aging and the state of the world.

One of the stand-out tracks on the album is a song called “Treaty.” This is a remorseful song looking back over how a relationship ended. Here Cohen sings:

I’m so sorry for the ghost I made you be,
Only one of us was real
And that was me.

With theme of reaching a more advanced age in life, Cohen is reflective on the track “Leaving The Table.” Here he (or perhaps from the point of view of a protagonist) acknowledges that the time has now passed for new beginnings. Similarly, on “Traveling Light”, Cohen muses that time has passed for too much preoccupation with romantic dreams. The title song – “You Want It Darker” – also deals with finality, although this is rendered ethereal through some beautifully sung backing harmonies from a choir.

The title track contains the lyrical gem: “I struggled with some demons, they were middle-class and tame.” There’s also plenty of darkness to live up to, as the title of the album suggests. ‘On Steer Your Way, Cohen bewails: “Steer your heart past the truth that you believed in yesterday/Such as fundamental goodness, and the wisdom of the way.”

With the state of world, Cohen reflects on an unnamed ideology on “It Seemed The Better Way”, inferring that the harsher realities of the modern world eventually repel such Utopian thoughts.

He also hints at a loss of faith on the track “It Seemed The Better Way” (“…though no one but a fool would bless the meek today”).

The themes are not all downbeat, however. There is plenty of optimism to be found on “If I Didn’t Have Your Love”, for example. Here Cohen expresses the view that without love one cannot truly see the beauty around them. Hopefully this signifies that Cohen’s self-reflection on his life is not at an end with this album, and that there’s at least one more to come.

The great thing about Cohen’s lyrics are, despite often drawing on mythological and Biblical references and being steeped in the beauty of language, he doesn’t avoid getting to the heart of the issue and he is not afraid to directly tackle the implications of life, death and inhumanity.

Musically the album is strong, benefiting from the production values of Cohen’s son Adam. There’s a diverse range of instruments (violins, Spanish guitars, and organs for instance) together with an effective use of harmonies, almost gospel sounding choirs on some of the tracks. The new production values gently push “You Want It Darker” into places, sonically, that Cohen’s work hasn’t really gone before.

The track listing for the new album is:

1. “You Want It Darker”
2. “Treaty”
3. “On The Level”
4. “Leaving The Table”
5. “If I Didn’t Have Your Love”
6. “Traveling Light”
7. “It Seemed The Better Way”
8. “Steer Your Way”
9. “String Reprise / Treaty”

It may be dark but there’s a redemptive beauty to be found in each of the nine songs. “You Want It Darker” is among Cohen’s best and it is a five-star album.

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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