Saying goodbye to the late Leonard Cohen

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When I wrote a review of Leonard Cohen’s [now] final album You Want It Darker a few weeks ago, I said how much it sounded like a final statement and was strengthened when he told The New Yorker he was ready to die. Still, the news of his death crippled me for a moment, having come much faster than I had anticipated. It had just been three weeks since the album was released, just like David Bowie’s Blackstar came out just a few days before his death.

Cohen died in Los Angeles last Monday at age 82, after years of declining health. The news didn’t break until Wednesday. He was buried in a plot, next to various family members in traditional Jewish rite. He had apparently been working on a few projects at the time, but it seemed that those in his inner circle knew Darker was the end. In hindsight, his last three albums–Old Ideas [2012], Popular Problems [2014], and this year’s Darker–seem like a farewell trilogy. The sound of weariness overcomes these songs, with his cynical side still present and a voice of exhaustion too.

Starting as a poet and novelist in Montreal, Cohen was late to the music scene. His first album came out in 1967, when he was 33, giving him a few years on contemporaries like Dylan. Songs of Leonard Cohen is his masterpiece: a whirlwind of joy, love, despair, resentment, jealousy, and wickedness. “Suzanne,” “Master Song,” “So Long, Marianne,” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” are all among his best known songs. It’s one of the most accomplished debuts ever put to record, with a voice of assurance, whether it was tender or cruel. He established himself as one of the great lyricists in popular music. In a few words, he could put an image in your head as clear as a photograph. This was his masterpiece, but he had plenty of tricks up his sleeve to prove he wasn’t a one-trick pony.

Songs from a Room and Songs of Love and Hate followed. The former was a fine album, anchored by “Bird on a Wire,” but it was the latter that brought back the pure genius of Cohen’s debut. Opening with the haunting guitar picking of “Avalanche,” a record begins that consists of songs of hate with vague traces of love buried beneath. “You who wish to conquer pain,” he sneers, “you must learn to serve me well.” His darkness has spread like a plague, battling evil, cowardice, denial, and vengeance. “Last Year’s Man,” “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and “Joan of Arc” are all drowning with doom, taking on suicide, tragic love triangles, deep insecurities, and lonely misunderstanding. The moments of love seem like afterthoughts, the story you feel obliged to tell after cutting to its dark ending.

Cohen didn’t release albums as frequently as his peers. While his albums could fall victim to excessive production, there was never doubt that a master was coming through the speaker. New Skin for the Old Ceremony, Recent Songs, and Various Positions are all strong albums. Positions has “Hallelujah,” a song communicating desire and doubt with grace and elegance. It’s been covered to death, and over the next couple of weeks, people will be learning that Cohen was the guy that wrote it. But, hopefully, they will explore what he has to offer, instead writing him off as the “Hallelujah” guy.

Cohen sent the ‘80s off with one of his greatest albums, right behind Love and Hate. I’m Your Man was everything people had come to hope from him. Once you get past the startling synths and beats, you realize they only enrichen the song. “First We Take Manhattan” is a horrifying look into the mind of a terrorist; “Everybody Knows” is a baleful look at human nature and a guilt trip for a restless love; the title track is a serenade of devotion rapidly approaching obsession; “Take This Waltz” (a loose translation of a Spanish poet’s work) is a lusty pursuit; “Tower of Song” is a statement of discontent about the future of music, himself included. These are among his best songs. He began the ‘90s with his most overtly political album, The Future, with centerpieces like “Democracy” and “Anthem,” songs that provide an endearing, if not somber, voice of support in the wake of the devastating outcome of Nov. 8 and the terror of what’s to come Jan. 21. Cohen could put words to your personal anxiety.

Ten New Songs and Dear Heather followed, but it was that final trilogy, with songs like “Going Home,” “Almost Like the Blues,” “Nevermind,” “Born in Chains,” “You Want it Darker,” “Treaty,” “It Seemed the Better Way,” and “Steer Your Way,” that proved Leonard Cohen to be one the most vital acts in the business. His voice had been taken by smokes and whisky for nearly two decades. These songs are dark as night, but the thoughts on mortality offer a reflection on life and graceful musings on what comes next. It seems to be the only logical conclusion for someone like Cohen.

Cohen is gone now, and his contemporaries are in their third act too. Bob Dylan, 76, can’t have too much time left, nor can the Glimmer Twins, Paul McCartney, Ray Davies, Neil Young, Paul Simon, John Fogerty, or Van Morrison. And as these giants reach their final stretch, I am able to see where these songs come from. The anxieties and wonder about the end is put into perspective, coming not so much from legends, but people who are afraid of what’s waiting for them at the other end. Cohen always had that side to him, and I can only hope he found some answers to his questions, or at least some peace.