Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want It Darker’, the 2016 album released just a few weeks before the legendary poet passed away aged 82, was uncompromisingly bleak. The late folk singer channelled the existential hopelessness of an America ready to trade Barack Obama for Donald Trump, the melancholic lyrics (at one point, Cohen croons, “A million candles burning for the help that never came”) still hard to forget about.
For many, it was the perfect sign off, as a wounded Cohen proved he was still capable of wryly reflecting on society and penning powerful lyrics that hit you right in the gut. It means that posthumous follow-up ‘Thanks for the Dance’ – helmed by Cohen’s son Adam and comprised of unfinished songs from the ‘You Want It Darker’ sessions coloured in by musicians such as Beck, Feist, Damien Rice, Bryce Dessner of The National, Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire and long-time Cohen collaborators Javier Mas and Jennifer Warnes – has a lot to live up to.
Thankfully this album doesn’t fall into the trap of posthumous records that feel like they’re shamelessly re-animating a corpse and therefore should have been left on the cutting room floor. Instead, this collection of tender songs finds Cohen at his most calm and reflective. In an interview promoting the project, Adam Cohen recalled how his sick father was immobilised and in pain, sitting inside a booth in the studio, drawing out every last drop of energy as he sang. And this focused stillness is reflected across each of these nine songs, as Cohen presents the unfiltered thoughts of a man acutely aware he’s in the process of transitioning from life into death.
On the title track, Cohen’s croaky vocals sound like he’s letting out a death rattle, but the clarity in which he speaks is astonishing. You’re truly left with the impression that a conversational Cohen is making peace with his life decisions, as he nostalgically sings: “It was hell / It was swell / It was fun.” The meditative beauty of ‘Here Comes The Hummingbird’ touches similar buttons and the whole project is much less apocalyptic than ‘You Want It Darker’; this point of difference more than justifies the record’s existence.
The biggest issue with this material is that it can, at points, sound a little scrappy. The gentle yet haunting piano of ‘The Goal’ is every bit as visual as vintage 1970s Cohen – especially his description of exchanging knowing stares with a neighbour – but the song ends before it really gets started, while ‘It’s Torn’ also feels like it would have benefitted from its creator actually being around to finish it. Yet thankfully, more often than not, this is a welcome epilogue, and its cathartic energy leaves you feeling satisfied.
On the flickering ‘Moving On’, Cohen’s whirly lyrics result in a morbid (“Now you’re gone / You broke the heart and made it new,” he strains to sing) meditation on death in which he longs for the touch of a lost loved one. It could almost be the mission statement for the album itself. Cohen is communicating with ghosts, aware he might soon become one himself, but he sounds strangely excited rather than scared. It’s further proof that Leonard Cohen was fearlessly artistic right until the end.
- Release date: November 22
- Record label: Columbia / Legacy