Leonard Cohen’s last album You Want it Darker was his final farewell to the world as the legendary singer-songwriter passed away on Nov. 7, 2016. Chances are you’ve heard of Leonard Cohen or listened to his music. His deep resonant voice, mixed with his lyrical ballads is impactful on all who have listened to him. The strength in which he writes his lyrical poetry, one would think they were grasped from the hands of Lord Byron himself.
His music was art, and his influence on the blues, R&B, folk and rock genres changed the way we think about love, spirituality and death. His passing was a shock to many generations of listeners, casual admirers and hard-core fans. He left behind something greater than just music; he left behind a legacy.
Born in Westmount, Quebec in 1934, Cohen began as a poet and novelist in his early years, rather than a singer. After graduating from Columbia University, Cohen moved to Greece, were he turned to song-writing shortly after meeting his first muse Marianne Ihlen, long-time girlfriend and life-time friend. This particular muse was an iconic woman of Cohen’s past and would be an important figure throughout his life. His first two albums Songs from Leonard Cohen (1967) and Songs from a Room (1969) were directly influenced by Ihlen. In his song entitled “So Long, Marianne,” we get one of the first glimpses into what will be a notable Cohen theme: that of aging and loss of youth. He speaks of meeting Marianne when they “were almost young,” a reflection on his days of youth as if they had recently slipped from his fingers. At that time, Cohen was no more than 33.
As his music progressed, so did his popularity. Various Positions (1984) was a well-known album of Cohen’s. The genre range on this album was great and included the classic Cohen blues, such as “Coming Back to You” to more country/folk tunes such as The Captain. His lyrics spoke to his mother and father, times of war and spirituality. What was perhaps one of Cohen’s greatest hits, “Hallelujah” was also featured on this album; a song many people turned back to after his death. “Hallelujah” has been covered by many artists over the years such as Justin Timberlake, Bon Jovi and Rufus Wainwright in the DreamWorks film Shrek (2001).
You Want it Darker was Cohen’s final goodbye to the world. In July, when his beloved Marianne was near-death, Cohen wrote her a letter that read in part: “Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine”. His album was released this October, shortly before his death and it expressed his readiness to meet God. It featured Cohen in a way the world has not seen before; both his singing and the lyrics themselves turned deeper and darker—a Cohen reminiscent of His Old Ideas (2012) and Popular Problems (2014).
Cohen was a devout Jew his entire life and this connection to the spiritual world came through in many of his tracks. The title track You Want it Darker, Cohen sings “Hineni, hineni/I’m ready, my Lord.” Hineni means "here I am" in Hebrew and this was said by Abraham to state his readiness to stand before God. "Here I am, I’m ready, my Lord." This meditation on the afterlife was further brought up in “Leaving the table, the third track, I’m leaving the table/I’m out of the game”.
Cohen’s music always had a sense of this contemplation between life or death and aging versus youth. In a way, he was always preparing himself for this final goodbye. His final album brought all those thoughts into a last testament to the life he lived and the battles he fought by turning his “back on the devil” and “on the angels too.”
What made so many people and generations fall in love with Cohen was the way he spoke of love in such a deep and romantic way, treating it with innocence and tenderness. He let his poetic background flow into his lyrics in a way that deeply moved his listeners. Not to mention, his songs are about things we have all experienced and felt. Cohen was able to perfectly put it into words the trials of life, love and death.
Farewell, Leonard Cohen, and may your angel eyes forever watch over us.
This piece was edited by Micaela Tesi, music editor of CanCulture.