Inside Leonard Cohen’s Late-Career Triumph ‘You Want It Darker’
Leonard Cohen has rarely been seen in public since he wrapped up his “Grand Tour” at the Vector Arena in Auckland, New Zealand, on December 21st, 2013, with a joyous encore of the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me.” That five-year, 387-date global odyssey – where he played for well over three hours a night – was a massive musical (and financial) success. But not long after, Cohen began to suffer serious physical problems. “Among many other things, he had multiple fractures of the spine,” says his son Adam. “He has a lot of hard miles on him.”
The 82-year-old singer-songwriter now lives on the second floor of a house he shares with his daughter Lorca in the Wilshire neighborhood of Los Angeles. (Lorca is raising a five-year-old daughter whose father is Rufus Wainwright.) In Cohen’s words, he’s “confined to barracks” due to severe mobility issues, but he was determined not to let that stop him from recording his new LP, You Want It Darker. He began work on the album about a year and a half ago, but he had to stop when producer Patrick Leonard (who worked with Cohen on his last two albums) suffered what Adam Cohen describes as “very serious personal problems.” Cohen then invited Adam, a singer-songwriter in his own right, to come in and complete the project. “It’s increasingly rare for children to be so useful to their parents,” says Adam. “To be in such intimate circumstances for such a lengthy period of time with my father was filled with sweetness for me.”
Adam turned Cohen’s house into a makeshift recording studio, placing an old Neumann U 87 microphone on the dining room table and filling the living room with computers, outboard gear and speakers. He also brought in an orthopedic medical chair for his father. “It’s designed to accommodate someone spending many, many hours on it,” says Adam. “You can sleep in it, eat in it and practically stand in it.” A laptop ran ProTools – Leonard merely had to sing. “Occasionally, in bouts of joy, he would even, through his pain, stand up in front of the speakers, and we’d repeat a song over and over like teenagers,” Adam adds. “Sometimes medical marijuana intervened and played a role.” The vocal tracking became a form of therapy for Leonard. “At times I was very worried about his health, and the only thing that buoyed his spirits was the work itself,” says Adam. “And given the incredible and acute discomfort he was suffering from in his largely immobilized state, [creating this album] was a great distraction.”
In typical Cohen fashion, he obsessed over every lyric of the nine songs, most of which were written in the past few years (though “Treaty,” featuring the lyric “I don’t care who takes this bloody hill/I’m angry and I’m tired all the time,” dates back a decade). Some of the songs were dictated into his phone; others he jotted down on a notepad he keeps in the breast pocket of his jacket. “It comes, kind of, by dribbles and drops,” he said at a recent L.A. press event. “Some people are graced with a flow. Some people are graced with something less than a flow. I’m one of those.”
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Although Cohen was never able to make it to the recording studio, where a team of about a dozen musicians, including organist Neil Larsen, guitarist Bill Bottrell and bassist Michael Chaves, worked on the material, he was still very much in command of the sessions. “I spoke to him at length, got his instructions before every session,” says Adam. “Then I faithfully tried to serve what I understood his vision to be in the studio. He also had final say and veto power. If you listen to this record versus the other recent ones, it’s a little bit more sparse and acoustic.”
Today, Cohen is in slightly better health than he was during the making of You Want It Darker. But any sort of tour in support of the album, or even a single live appearance, is highly unlikely. “He’s meticulous and requires a lot of rehearsing,” says Adam. “It’s just not in the cards.” But there are at least three songs that didn’t make the album, and they may provide a beginning for the next one. “They say that life is a beautiful play with a terrible third act,” says Adam. “If that’s the case, it must not apply to Leonard Cohen. Right now, at the end of his career, perhaps at the end of his life, he’s at the summit of his powers.”
Leonard Cohen announced his new LP, ‘You Want It Darker’. Watch here.
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