On his signature classic, “Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen sang about meeting “the Lord of Song.” But on the title track of his new LP, the third in a late-game rally that’s been as startlingly brilliant as Bob Dylan’s, Cohen takes that imagined reckoning with the Almighty deeper, intoning “Hineni,” a Hebrew term for addressing God that translates as “Here I am.” The punchline, aside from the title’s cheeky challenge – true Cohen fans always want it darker – is that with his cantorial delivery, the famous lady’s man makes the phrase sound kinda like “hey, baby.” In fact, an unlikely EDM remix of “You Want It Darker,” by DJ Paul Kalkbrenner, turns the phrase into a dance-floor chant – more proof of how much modern lifeblood still flows through Cohen’s voice after five decades on the job.
This is Cohen’s gift to music lovers: a realistically grim, spiritually radiant and deeply poetic worldview, generally spiked with a romantic thrum and an existential wink. Following a string of records that have each felt like a swan song, You Want It Darker may be Cohen’s most haunting LP. At 82, it might also be his last.
“I’m angry and I’m tired all the time,” he sings on “Treaty,” a stately parlor march to piano and strings that blooms from breakup lament into meditations on the fool’s errand of religion. The Brylcreem-scented slow dance “Leaving the Table” similarly flickers between romantic and spiritual resignation, Bill Bottrell’s electric guitar and steel fills flickering like mirror-ball beams as the famous rake ruefully insists, “I don’t need a lover/The wretched beast is tame” – as sure a sign of the End Times as Arctic melt.
As on Cohen’s 2014 Popular Problems, blues define the vibe. But other colors deepen the narrative. The Congregation Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir, who billow across the title track, recall Cohen’s Jewish upbringing in Montreal; “Traveling Light” conjures his halcyon years in Greece in the early Sixties with his late muse Marianne Ihlen, the subject of “So Long, Marianne,” who died in late July. “Goodnight, my fallen star …” Cohen sings in a near-whisper amid bouzouki notes, like a man dancing in an empty taverna after closing time.
Like Bowie’s Blackstar and Dylan’s long goodbye, You Want It Darker is the sound of a master soundtracking his exit, with advice for those left behind. “Steer your way through the ruins of the Altar and the Mall,” he sings near the album’s end, against a gently bouncing bluegrass fiddle, his son Adam’s subtle guitar and Alison Krauss’ angelic backing vocals. It’s what he’s always done, helping the rest of us do the same, as best we can.