The song is over. The dance is done. Or so we thought. When You Want It Darker was released, coinciding with the death of Leonard Cohen, the record took on a huge significance. This is generally the case. Think of the way Blackstar was perceived in the wake of David Bowie’s death. Or Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. Lots of other albums could be added to this list. They fall in with Drake—a talent cut down in the prime of life (Winehouse, Cobain, Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith)—or they fall in with Bowie—elder statesman laying down one final luminous opus. This is what You Want It Darker felt like. I poured over it like I had done with Blackstar, Lou Reed’s Lulu and Johnny Cash’s American IV.
Then there’s all those records that arrive afterwards. The relentless money-making of the Hendrix estate, scraping the patch of earth where the bottom of the barrel used to be. Annually, it seems, another Hendrix album arrives, promising unheard material. The fact that the well was already dry in the ’70s doesn’t seem to deter those in control. The American series of albums that Johnny Cash knocked out with Rick Rubin in his final decade are superb: stripped back, ruminative, playful. The posthumous releases lacked the excellence of the first four, even if Cash kept the tapes rolling up until the end in order to make these final two releases happen.
Like Prince, Leonard Cohen was experiencing a creative rebirth at the end of his life. Unlike Prince, he knew—as did we—that the dance was nearly over.
And that’s what makes Thanks for the Dance, the Godfather of Gloom’s “final” studio album seem so magical.
Cohen’s voice, in his final two decades, was a desiccated sound, rattly and rough edged. He sounds like he was in perpetual need of a good throat clearing. All part of the wonder.
The songs are like pieces of text from the Bible or some other ancient religious tome. Rich in language, wise, brooding. But also funny, sexy, violent. Like Michael Kiwanuka’s similarly magnificent KIWANUKA, this album has a gravitas that marks it as one of the very best of the year. Unlike Kiwanuka, this is not a young man finding his way in life but rather an elderly man finding his way towards death.
Cohen’s producer and son, Adam Cohen, has crafted a record that goes way beyond the industry standard of sweeping up the offcuts. Instead, this record stands up in its own right. It’s the fourth part in the tetralogy that started with Popular Problems, and Old Ideas, and then seemed to end with You Want It Darker. When the whispers started of a posthumous studio album release, it didn’t seem possible that something as, well, whole as this was going to be waiting in the wings.
A fitting end then. Unlike the various parties who have controlled the Hendrix estate over the years, including his surviving relatives, Adam Cohen does not seem driven here by the desire to make money, or to keep his father’s name in the public eye, or whatever other motivation there might be. It would seem that this is purely the move of a son who wishes to fulfill his father’s final wishes. “I was always working steady / but I never called it art,” intones Cohen Sr. at the opening of the album. Disingenuous to the last.
And who knows? If he’s been working steady, there might be another album tucked away somewhere. But if there isn’t, then let’s leave it at this.
Score: 🗝️🗝️🗝️🗝️🗝️ / 5