PREVIOUSLY: Everybody knows that 2016 was a cruel and unusual year. Intolerably cruel. Everybody knows that war is over and everybody knows the good guys lost. So I am only half-kidding when I ask: How can we possibly be expected to endure the abominable presidency of Donald Trump without David Bowie, Prince or Princess Leia? But I’m dead serious when I say we can’t do this without Leonard Cohen, who died at the ripe old age of 82 on the day before the election. As ever, his timing was impeccable. It goes without saying that he’d seen the future, baby, and it is spray-tanned murder. A few weeks prior to his departure, he’d released You Want It Darker, one part deathbed confessional, one part last will and testament, one part love letter to all he can’t leave behind.
This collection of prayers for the doomed is arguably the most perfect album-length statement in his sacred canon. Like all prime Cohen, it is marked by astonishing verbal acuity and a high-def philosophical clarity that coalesces into a kind of metaphysical calligraphy carved in stone by the Old Testament prophet gravitas of his voice, that patented sepulchral purr that has been getting liberal arts majors laid since at least 1967. He’s never sounded more certain or fearless, or closer to death, so near you can almost hear the Grim Reaper’s Vader-like breath on the back of his leathery neck as he croaks out lines like “I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game,” “It’s au revoir,” and “I’m ready, Lord.”
Invariably spare and fleeting and surprisingly luminous, the music on You Want It Darker — a midnight jazz lowing in the moonlight, a monastic noir for the ears, and a quick stroll down Boogie Street for old time’s sake — is relentlessly faultless in arrangement, tonality and execution. The recording, overseen by his son Adam, ensures that everything is writ timeless and crystalline as befits the eternal verities he’s been tasked with preserving. History will rank the title track and “Treaty” next to “Bird On A Wire” and “Hallelujah,” a hundred floors above us in the Tower Of Song.
Because the thing about Leonard Cohen is that he was always right, always — even when he turned out to be wrong about, say, Rebecca DeMornay or trusting his manager with his money or his decade-long Zen hermitage atop Mt. Baldy. Because the incontrovertible koanic fact of the matter is that the way to always be right is always admit when you are wrong, acknowledge that was then but this is now. Or as he sings on “It Seemed The Better Way,” it “sounded like the truth, but it’s not the truth today.” Because today nothing is true, and when nothing is true everything is permitted. That is the crack in the center of everything, where the Putin gets in.
Look, nobody should be surprised that The Rapture came and only took Leonard Cohen but that doesn’t make it any less sad and lonesome. While I can’t blame an 82-year-old man with a splintering spine for getting on with the dirty business of dying, I can’t help but feel left behind on an abandoned ship in a darkening sea, still tending the flame of “a million candles burning for the help that never came.” In my prayers, I asked Leonard Cohen “How lonely does it get?” Leonard Cohen hasn’t answered me yet, but I can hear him coughing all night long, a million miles above us in The Great Beyond. – JONATHAN VALANIA