Did we want it darker? Either way, the legendary Leonard Cohen took it there.
Today he released his forthcoming album’s title track, described in a press statement as “an unflinching exploration of the religious mind.” The lyrics of “You Want It Darker” convey the poetic insight we’ve come to expect from Cohen, but the instrumentation transforms it into one of Cohen’s most ominous-sounding songs ever. He draws from traditional signifiers of darkness, especially those with a religious association, from a chorus of ghostly “ooo”s (sung by Montreal’s Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir), to a haunting church organ, to a soloist chanting a minor melody. Cohen’s own low, gravelly voice has only gained emotional nuance over the years.
Cohen’s lyrics are often dark, but even the relentlessly bleak list of death methods in “Who By Fire” had a jaunty melody that made the song feel playful. “You Want It Darker,” by contrast, jumps off the deep end and makes no attempt to surface.
But it’s a beautiful descent. As Cohen himself recently said, “As I grew older, I understood that instructions came with this voice. What were these instructions? The instructions were never to lament casually. And if one is to express the great inevitable defeat that awaits us all, it must be done within the strict confines of dignity and beauty.”
“You Want It Darker” blames human suffering on a destructive higher power. This God isn’t just failing (“If you are the healer / I’m broken and lame,” “A million candles burning for the help that never came”). God is deliberately poisoning humankind, encouraging the darkness: “They’re lining up the prisoners and 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 maim / You want it darker.”
Though a divine power corrupts what was previously “tame,” the fault ultimately lies with the worshippers themselves. The refrain vows, “I’m ready, my Lord.” If God wants it darker, Cohen will deliver. “You want it darker / We kill the flame.”
A statement today on Cohen’s Facebook page noted that his forthcoming album is not one that “a young talented artist—even a young, talented Leonard Cohen—could have written. You Want It Darker reflects the perspective of a genius who has experienced a long, self-aware life viewed with profound honesty and expressed with expertise, authenticity, and graciousness.”
Today is Leonard Cohen’s 82nd birthday. Happy birthday, Mr. Cohen, and thanks for the brutal insight into the dark corners of the human soul.
You Want It Darker, already hailed as one of Cohen’s best albums by preview listeners, will be released Oct. 21. Listen to the title track below.