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.
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.