He wrote some of the most authentic poetry…everybody knows.

By Hal Fish: Music Columnist

This November marks four years since Leonard Cohen sadly passed away. His final album, released just three weeks before his death, was a masterful way of saying goodbye to this world through his art.

Cohen wrote You Want it Darker knowing that it would likely be his final word to the public. Indeed, only months before, Cohen had expressed this belief in a letter he sent to be read at his dear friend Marianne Ihlen’s funeral.

He wrote: “I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has too.” This was of course the same Marianne that had inspired one of his best-known songs: So Long, Marianne.

But what makes a poignant farewell album? Common are themes of death and religion – David Bowie leant heavily upon these topics in his own stunning self-eulogy Blackstar. For Cohen, those themes are certainly present in You Want it Darker. Notions of love, lust, loss and isolation also feature keenly, as does his ability to outline both beauty and pain, often together. What’s crucial to the album’s authenticity, however, is that these motifs have always been a part of his storytelling.

Cohen was a poet and so it’s fitting that lyrical moments littered throughout the album are those which most beautifully, and honestly, surmise his work and life. It is his words – often poems first then later set to music – that best reach out and make this album so profound. He brings together the threads that have sewn together his art.

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“I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has too.”

Leonard Cohen Mural: Montreal. Picture Marie Pierre

In the titular track, the Canadian calls out to his religion as he prepares to face death, singing: “Hineni, hineni. I’m ready my Lord.” – Hineni being Hebrew for ‘here I am’. This theme then bleeds into one of human relationships, in On the Level he concludes: “When I walked away from you, I turned my back on the devil, turned my back on the angel, too.”

And love is so pertinent always for Cohen, but very rarely in his songs has it been simple. In Treaty he speaks of love as if it has been some battle, one he’s finally ready to concede: “I wish there was a treaty we could sign. I do not care who takes this bloody hill. I’m angry and I’m tired all the time. I wish there was a treaty. Between your love and mine.”

Of course, for it to be a farewell, Cohen must say his goodbye. This is most clearly stated in the unmissable Leaving the Table. A mournful guitar solo echoes throughout, bringing life to the sombre melody. His voice, once like honey, now turned to gravel thanks to the passage of time. Cohen sings, “I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game.”

All these moments come together across the album to tell his story. He is saying all the things he has said before, and yet he finds a way to make it feel both new and final. And that is how Leonard Cohen mastered the art of saying goodbye.


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