Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker

Leonard Cohen gives us a darkness that isn’t just pure sad or heavy, but reflective and gentle. This isn’t just a work of art from a single period of time, but from a whole lifetime of living.

Leonard Cohen

You Want It Darker

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2016-10-21
UK Release Date: 2016-10-21

You Want It Darker is the 14th studio record from Leonard Cohen. At once musician, poet, storyteller, and all around Renaissance man, the singer-songwriter has experimented with a variety of instrumentation throughout his 60-year career. These sounds have captured the minimal essence of gentle acoustics from previous works such as his ever popular record Songs from a Room (1969), to the more recent blues heavy Popular Problems (2014). Cohen has proven over this immense career that he can always find just the right music to convey the story that he's telling. In You Want It Darker, there is a darker, more somber reflection taking place than in previous work. This is portrayed not only through a combination of excellent usage in different sounds, but also with superb lyricism.

Title track “You Want It Darker” sets the overall tone for the record in its minimalism. While the track is primarily a light beat, some orchestral keys and light singing in the background, these small parts do create a largeness to them. This largeness becomes stronger when Cohen’s lyrics come in with lines such as, “They’re lining up the prisoners now / The guards are taking aim / I struggled with some demons / They were middle-class and tame / I Didn’t know I had permission / To murder and to maim / You want it darker…” The particular story becomes haunting and heavier with the background allowing it to have room.

The record narrows in on specific themes that include politics, religion, love, and age. “Treaty” is one of the stronger sorrowful moments, opening with the lines: “I seen you change the water into wine / I seen you change it back to water too / I sit at your table every night / I try but I just don’t get high with you…”, eventually leading into “…I wish there was a treaty / Between your love and mine." This is backed by gentle keyboards and lighter strings that fill the background. This combination is a giant pool of emotion, made of these droplets to create such an effective story. Cohen’s storytelling is at some of his best with this record, and his lyricism is at once playful, poetic, sorrowful, and alive.

“On the Level” comes in with the same keys as before, but with the first time we get more of a prominent guitar. What happens within the next minute is this jump to a soulful chorus where the guitar adds more of a drive. This is a pure soul track with large doses of what makes catchy gospel music. “Leaving the Table” takes a long curve around the bend to deliver a strong country twang, that then transitions into a steady peaceful country song (while not losing its somber edge). The track primarily focusing on guitar and strings, creating a relaxing stroll through the lyrics.

“If I Didn’t Have Your Love” switches gear lyrically with new focus on love. Whereas the previous three songs were of losing love in the walking away sense, this is a losing love in what it means to have that special someone not with you when you care for them. Halfway through the album we see the majority of instrumentals utilize keyboards, guitar, and strings. While the music itself is very beautiful, its main role is in enhancing the story. “Traveling Light” has the “fastest” introduction in the sense of the picking notes. Even at this point Cohen has proven himself worthy of creating scenes with his music. There's lots of movement of the characters in each song, whether it's in where they travel, or their actions interacting with others in the stories.

“Traveling Light” creates a late night stroll of twinkling stars, and moon light reflecting in water. “It Seemed the Better Way” begins with some beautiful strings that lead into the first time the record ever feels “dreamy”; the gentle airy energy in the background, accompanied with the simple rhythm creates a heavy mist. There is this dark almost sinister tone to this song not even near being captured close previously. It is a welcoming sound and adds an extra level as far as mystery to the lyrics. The strings make a bright appearance towards the end, being the only thing pulling the listener in from the heavier side of darkness.

“Steer Your Way” feels bigger in itself than just one song telling a story. The instrumental is playful, and each following note hits like a footstep, which plays strongly into the idea that this song is conveying traveling. The song itself feels it is the embodiment of an entire journey. Cohen’s lyrics not only discuss what the character views in the moment, but that which they reflect on within. In a way this is the one time that the record takes a major step away from any dark vibes and portrays something lighter and upbeat. The record goes back to a much darker place after with the final track “String Reprise/ Treaty”. The strings at their heaviest and most sorrowful, we return to perhaps the saddest song on the track. The echo in each draw vibrates a loneliness, only more powerful with Cohen’s voice as he states, “I wish there was a treaty we could sign / It’s over now, the water and the wine / We were broken then, but now we’re borderline / And I wish there was a treaty / I wish there was a treaty/ Between your love and mine."

In You Want It Darker, Leonard Cohen presents a body of work that feels whole and complete with its large moments and small steps of reflection, loss, and discovery. Cohen’s work throughout the years has captured reflection in an attempt to understand what is going on with the world at the time. What You Want It Darker accomplishes isn’t just powerful instrumentation in minimalism, or strong poeticism, but that of an artist baring their soul, and the sharing of sincere truth.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.