Two days before she died on the 29th July 2016, Leonard Cohen’s erstwhile friend, lover, and muse Marianne Ihlen received a letter from her old devotee as she lay on her deathbed. Marianne first met Cohen when they were both on the Greek Island of Hydra, where Cohen had gone in the early 1960s to escape the unromantic modern world and lead a monastic, medieval existence. Or so he hoped.
A lifetime later, Cohen addresses his old friend one last time in the short, beautifully plaintive letter. He writes: “Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”
The letter is moving because Cohen’s tone, infused as always with a wry, melancholy humour, contains a note of surprise that they find themselves as they do – old and decrepit. Yet his reaction is not of anger, despair or resentment but graceful acceptance. Fifteen weeks later, Cohen kept his promise to Marianne, passing over the threshold of this life into whatever lays beyond.
Like David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, released two days before he died, You Want it Darker is a swan song, a settling of accounts, and the closing chapter of an artist with a long life and career. As happens inevitably with such works, every note and lyric takes on an ineluctable quality of deeper meaning.
But even if a listener were unaware of the record’s context it would be hard not to clock the valedictory tone of this album. From the enchanting echoes in ‘You Want it Darker’ to the weary, resigned groan, “I’m leaving the table,/I’m out of the game,” the impression is of a man watching the last embers of his life slowly fade. This is a man who is submitting to the world the document of his farewell before closing his arms across his chest and laying down to rest with dignity, gratitude, and grace.
Normally, if someone told me they had never listened to Leonard Cohen before, I would under no circumstances permit them to begin with anything but his first three albums. That trilogy, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), Songs From a Room (1969), and Songs of Love and Hate (1971), has always been and will always remain the trust, purest, and most piercing of Leonard Cohen’s contributions. They reveal an earnest, restless, and searching soul in pursuit of an ungraspable goal. In You Want It Darker, the itinerant hungry soul has come to rest.
This last album indisputably joins those first three in the highest category of Leonard Cohen’s work and I would have no compunction in directing a new listener to this record. The bird on the wire has flown and I can only thank him, earnestly, for the gifts he has left us.