Not a lot of people can get away with uttering the word “puppet” sans laughter. Leonard Cohen was not “a lot of people.” Perhaps because he had a voice that would have gravitas even while ordering a burger and fries. Perhaps because he was both a musician and a seer.
“Puppets” comes off of Cohen’s posthumous album, Thanks for the Dance, an evolution of a poem he published in 2006’s Book of Longing. A rumination on evil and control (“German puppets burnt the Jews”), “Puppets” stands in stark contrast to the rest of Cohen’s velvet storytelling on Dance — which makes it all the more powerful. A decade before now-President Trump uttered one of his many meme-able phrases, “No puppet,” Cohen wrote: “Puppet presidents command/Puppet troops to burn the land.” Cohen died just a few days after the 2016 election.
Posthumous albums are thorny for a lot of reasons, in this case because Cohen released his final album, You Want It Darker, less than a month before his death. In one of his final interviews, with the New Yorker, Cohen said: “At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.”
You Want It Darker was just another part of putting his house in order. Like David Bowie’s Blackstar, it put a period on a long career, and no one was expecting for an epilogue. Perhaps that’s what makes Thanks for the Dance all the more stunning. Completed by Cohen’s son Adam — along with Daniel Lanois, Beck and a cadre of other performers — it’s “a sort of séance as shiva,” according to Rolling Stone’s Will Hermes.
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Cohen lives on — in songs, in his son, in our memories — and, despite when he penned the words, “Puppets” will continue to be relevant as long as humans are humans.