Leonard Cohen
Thanks for the Dance
Columbia/Sony Music

It is rare that the death of a celebrity affects me quite the way that Leonard Cohen’s has.  I grew up with Leonard Cohen.  My mother played his music a lot when I was a child.  I am from the same city as Leonard Cohen, Montréal.  And Montréal, as he noted in his novel, The Favourite Game, is a city you can never leave.  On the jacket of his 1961 book of poetry, The Spice-Box of Earth, he noted ‘I have to keep coming back to Montreal to renew my neurotic affiliations.’  He is not wrong.  Montréal will do that to you.  But it was more than growing up on his music, and being from Montréal.  It is more than my own wanderings from Montréal.  It was Cohen’s words, it was his music, it was the legend that his life had become.  His intense love affairs with Suzanne Elrod (which provoked both the album, Death of a Ladies’ Man and the book of poetry, Death of a Lady’s Man, as well as his two children, Adam and Lorca) or Suzanne Verdal (which led to the track, ‘Suzanne’) or, of course, the most storied love affair, that with Marianne Ihlen (‘So Long, Marianne,’ most famously, but also most of his album, Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs from a Room).  It was all of that, including his gravelly voice, and the profound wisdom that sprung from his mouth when he sang or from his pen when he wrote poetry.  Or when he spoke.  He wrote the words by which I live, ‘There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in’ (from ‘Anthem’ on his album, The Future).

So when Cohen went to his reward in 2016, I was bereft to a degree. I cannot listen to his last album, You Want it Darker.  It is too dark.  For a good while after he died, his songs moved me to tears.  The first time I heard The Wolf Parade’s tribute, ‘Valley Boy,’ I had to sit down for nearly 15 minutes and just replay the song over and over.

And our city responded to his death with this  massive outpouring of public grief.  We all had a Leonard Cohen story tor three.  We could all recall seeing him, talking to him, around town.  He was a familiar site on the Plateau Mont-Royal, around the Parc du Portugal on the Saint-Laurent Main.  Me, I had a run in with him at a laundromat in Calgary in 1993.  And, of course, I saw him around Montréal.  We were always so careful to ensure his ability to live his life, we did not crowd him.  But if we said hello, he responded in kind.  I once called out to him in the snow on rue Rachel, he called back and waved.  When he died, his home, a regular triplex on the Plateau, became a shrine to Cohen.  He was immortalized in at least two murals, one on the Plateau, one downtown.

So when news emerged that he had left behind some vocals that his son, Adam (a musician in his own right) worked into a posthumous album, a final good-bye, a tribute to the legend that was Leonard Cohen, I was worried.  Could I even listen to it? Would it be faithful to what I, or any of Cohen’s millions of fans, had as our collective vision of him?

We needn’t have worried.  Cohen left these vocals behind as he was dying of cancer, frail and broken. And yet, he could still deliver these performances.  He noted their existence in what was his final interview, on 16 October 2016, stating that he was about halfway through a new collection of songs, that they weren’t half bad, but he feared he wouldn’t have the time to finish them.  He was right.  He died three weeks later.

Adam Cohen has called these recitations, and I guess they are that.  But, they also reflect You Want It Darker and both 2014’s Popular Problems and 2012’s Old Ideas.  By then his low gravelly voice had become slightly more than a growl, and his vocals had largely become recitations of his lyrics.  But, then again, Cohen was never known for his voice.  He mocked himself in ‘Tower of Song’: ‘I was born like this/I had no choice/I was born with the gift/Of a golden voice.’  And when he won a Juno Award for Best Male Vocalist for this 1992 album, The Future, Cohen noted that it was only in Canada where someone with his voice could win such an award.

Adam Cohen created the music with a few famous friends, including Feist, Daniel Lanois, and Beck.  He also worked with  many of his father’s long-time collaborators, including Jennifer Warnes and guitarist Javier Màs.  Adam worked with his father on You Want It Darker, so this was a continuation of their collaboration.  These two albums also mark the only time that Cohen & Son produced music, at least for public consumption.  Adam Cohen lives in Los Angeles, where Leonard died, so this album was finished in the studios there and in Berlin.

The music is beautiful throughout.  Stunning, even.  Adam Cohen has reconstructed his father’s sound lovingly and gorgeously.  It feels like the elder Cohen is still here with us.  And part of this is because Cohen & Son discussed instrumentation and how to create music around his words.  But it’s also a tribute to Adam’s work here.  It is a short collection, clocking in at around 30 minutes, as Cohen is literally pondering his mortality, and recalling moments of his life.

It begins with a beautiful guitar with ‘Happens to the Heart,’ where Cohen’s deep voice, soft with age, joins in:

I was always working steady
But I never called it art
I got my shit together
Meeting Christ reading Marx
Sure it failed my little fire
But it’s bright the dying spark
Go tell the young messiah
What happens to the heart

This track is followed by ‘Moving On,’ which is an adieu to an old love, and I imagine this is for Marianne, in light of his email to her as she lay dying in July 2016:

Dearest Marianne,

I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has too, and the eviction notice is on its way any day now.

I’ve never forgotten your love and your beauty. But you know that. I don’t have to say any more. Safe travels old friend. See you down the road. Love and gratitude.

— Leonard.
‘The Night of Santiago’ is actually a Gabriel Garçia Lorca poem set to music.  Lorca loaned his name to Cohen’s daughter.  Lorca was also one of Cohen’s favourite poets, and this recitation and the music around it is beautiful.  And the interesting thing is that Cohen’s voice makes this poem his own, to say nothing of the fact that he could’ve written these words.  I had never really thought of the overlap between Lorca and Cohen, two of my own favourite poets.  But there it is.
‘The Goal’ is a song of death, or dying at least, as Cohen is clearly pondering his mortality:
I can’t leave my house
Or answer the phone
I’m going down again
But I’m not aloneSettling at last
Accounts of the soul
This for the trash
That paid in full

As for the fall, it
Began long ago
Can’t stop the rain
Can’t stop the snow

I sit in my chair
I look at the street
The neighbor returns
My smile of defeat

I move with the leaves
I shine with the chrome
I’m almost alive
I’m almost at home

No one to follow
And nothing to teach
Except that the goal
Falls short of the reach

 

This continues with ‘The Hills’:
I can’t make the hills
The system is shot
I’m living on pills
For which I thank God
But it is not all mortality and gloom here.  Cohen was still full of life as he faded, it seems. In both ‘Thanks for the Dance’ and ‘It’s Torn,’ he ponders loves lost, his illustrious history.  And he does so in his own way, where even the mundanity of love and daily life is rendered essential and all that matters.
The album finishes with ‘Listen to the Hummingbird.’  This was a poem he read at the press conference launching You Want It Darker, a half-finished one, which Adam Cohen had to hunt down in Sony Music’s archives.  He then wrote a song around it.  But there is a beauty in this, as this was essentially Cohen’s last words in public, and they are the last words we will ever hear from him.
Listening to this album is a strange, almost out-of-body experience.  The great poet has been gone for just over three years.  And yet, here is his voice in my ears, in a dark room, on a rainy night.  He is still with us, even if he is not.  And taken together, it also reminds me of some of my favourite words Leonard Cohen ever wrote:
G-d is alive. Magic is afoot.  G-D is alive. Magic is afoot. G-d is afoot.  Magic is alive.  Alive is afoot.  Magic never died.’