Monday, November 7, 2016

Darker, Deeper

I was introduced to Leonard Cohen by my father. He used to play Len's More Best Of compilation around the house, thereby exposing me to songs like Everybody Knows, Take This Waltz and Dance Me to the End of Love (Dad's personal favourite) long before I heard older and perhaps more celebrated Cohen cuts like Bird on the Wire and So Long, Marianne.

This past Saturday, I was in the car with both my dad and my girlfriend Vicky. 1988's I'm Your Man was on the CD player, and I asked Dad - who I've only ever caught listening to post-1980 Leonard Cohen releases - if he'd ever heard the Canadian artist's earlier, more folk-influenced work. He replied that he had, but wasn't all that fussed on it; "you know me," he continued, "if it hasn't got any jokes in it then I won't stay interested for very long."

Now, you probably don't think 'laugh riot' when you think of Leonard Cohen, but to be fair, my Dad (whose all-time favourite artists include Jake Thackray, Flanders & Swann, Mitch Benn, and Tom Lehrer) did have a point: amongst the gloom of Cohen's mid- and late-period output, there are a fair few dark chuckles to be had. Indeed, wasn't it Len himself who once said "there is a crack in everything"? Songs like I Can't Forget (from I'm Your Man) and Slow (from 2014's Popular Problems) betray a more light-hearted side of the subterranean-voiced songwriter, but my dad's favourite Leonard Laff® comes from Tower of Song, on which Cohen sarcastically laments: "I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice". If you're listening to the Live in London album, this line prompts an enthusiastic cheer from the audience.

Just after the two-minute mark.

On the face of it, Leonard Cohen's new album - You Want It Darker - doesn't have many jokes to offer. True, we had a good laugh in the car on Saturday when I hooked my iPhone up to the car stereo and played a couple of tracks from Darker so that we could compare Cohen '88 - himself no castrato - with the contrabass gravelations of Cohen '16. If Leonard Cohen's voice was a deep, deep lake when he recorded I'm Your Man, it had swollen into a vast, bottomless sea by the time he committed You Want It Darker to tape. Compare the title track from I'm Your Man...

...with the title track from You Want It Darker...

...and you'll see why we were laughing in nigh-disbelief when one followed the other through the speakers of my Volkswagen Up! on the weekend; the album might just as well have been called You Want It Deeper. Vicky and I were particularly tickled by the similarities we heard between Darker Leonard's vocals and the orgasm-inducing voice of Howell Granger from Black Books.


But Peter Serafinowicz parallels aside, You Want It Darker is not remotely a humorous album. Simple sadnesses (like the deteriorating relationship documented on teary highlight Treaty) are mingled with meditations on the very nature of truth itself, and the whole thing is draped heavily with the lexicon and imagery of religion. For instance, the Hebrew word 'Hineni' ('here I am') shows up on the title track, just after the verse that begins "magnified, sanctified be thy holy name" and just before the bit where Cohen stoically sings "I'm ready, my Lord" like Jesus accepting his fate in Gethsemane. Or, for that matter, like an 82-year-old man from Quebec who knows he can't have many years left.

And yet. For all the shadow in which this new album - only Cohen's fourteenth in almost fifty years - shrouds itself, you suspect there's still a knowing smile behind it all. It's the title that gives the game away: You Want It Darker, as if Len knows that his fans (my dad excepted) crave the doom-and-darkness approach that has been his speciality throughout his entire career. We've heard Dress Rehearsal Rag (a song about slitting your wrists in a hotel bathroom), and we've heard Everybody Knows (an ominous-sounding summary of the 1980s AIDS crisis), and we've heard Samson in New Orleans (which I think was something to do with Hurricane Katrina), and we're living in...y'know, the world right now. And a little bird tells Leonard Cohen that, in spite of all that, we still want it darker.

So he pops out of his little hatch in the pitch blackness and tugs on his cigarette and in his voice like tar and dark chocolate he goes, "Well, alrighty then. You asked for it."

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