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A soundtrack for the twilight years of life

  • Leonard Cohen’s posthumous album, Thanks for the Dance, is built from recordings during his final year
  • It is like an evocative epilogue for his career as a contemporary music’s poet laureate

Leonard Cohen performing in California, in 2009.
Leonard Cohen performing in California, in 2009. (Photo: Getty Images)

When Leonard Cohen released You Want It Darker in 2016, barely 20 days before his death, it felt like closure. It was an ominous, deeply sad swansong. And as the title suggests, uncompromisingly, exquisitely dark. And when he died at 82, it also seemed eerily prescient. So when we heard this year that his son, Adam, was putting together a posthumous album made up of unfinished bits of recordings from the same session that produced You Want It Darker, there was doubt. Would it be a faint shadow of the previous album? An array of leftovers and rejects that ought to have been left on the studio floor? A posthumous milking of an artist’s not-so-great final efforts?

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We needn’t have worried. The nine songs on Thanks For The Dance, which dropped on 22 November, are just 29 minutes long. And yet, it is, in every way, different from the broodingly gloomy farewell album. Those 2016 recording sessions were excruciating for Cohen. Bound to a wheelchair, nearly immobilized in a recording booth, modern music’s greatest poet worked with his son to create several songs, most of which we heard on You Want It Darker. But there was more. Full vocal recordings; and unfinished shorter ones. It is from those that Adam, with the help of an array of musicians—including Beck, The National’s Bryce Dessner, and Javier Mas, the Spanish laud (a plectrum-plucked chordophone) player—has produced his late father’s new album.

Cohen has been called the “Godfather of gloom" and moody ruminations about love, God, religion and death have pervaded the late-blooming Canadian’s work ever since he released his first album at the ripe old age of 33 back in 1967. Thanks For The Dance is not an exception. Lyrics are central to Cohen’s songs. And he was an exacting, meticulous crafter of those as well as of his recordings, in which he always strived to attain perfection. Cohen’s fans—and they defy the demographics of age, ethnicity and beliefs—will be delighted by the new album.

I have been streaming the album on a loop since it came out but there is a song among the nine that I have been playing on repeat. The Night Of Santiago is an urgent lover’s song, its lyrics obstinately belying the state of the singer when he recorded it—an octogenarian waiting to die. Cohen then was in the last stages of leukaemia, weak and unable to move because of multiple compression fractures of his spine, but with only a hint of a croak in his voice he sings (while Beck plays a mouth harp): She said she was a maiden/ That wasn’t what I heard/ For the sake of conversation/ I took her at her word/ The lights went out behind us/ The fireflies undressed/ The broken sidewalk ended/ I touched her sleeping breasts/ They opened to me urgently/ Like lilies from the dead/ Behind a fine embroidery/ Her nipples rose like bread/ Then I took off my necktie/ And she took off her dress/ My belt and pistol set aside/ We tore away the rest.

Thanks For The Dance is not a perfect album. Rebuilt from bits of recordings, some of the songs still sound unfinished. Clocking in at a little over a minute, The Goal leaves you abruptly, ending almost as soon as it begins. But if You Want It Darker was steeped in finality, Thanks For The Dance is an album which, despite its brevity, encompasses a surprising range of themes. On Puppets, it is politics. And of how politics makes puppets out of man. It recalls the Holocaust and the burning of Jews but also comments, subtly, on the current state of the world (Puppet presidents command/ Puppet troops to burn the land).

At times on Thanks For The Dance, Cohen sounds like a man who, at the very end of his life, is looking back at his life and feeling at peace with all the decisions he made, right or wrong. That is most evident in the title track of the album, where he expresses no regret about the past (Thanks for the dance/ It was hell, it was swell, it was fun). Sex, religion, spirituality—themes that recur in all of Cohen’s past work—are unsurprisingly all there on the new album. In Moving On, he mourns and yearns for a lost lover. The Hills is a meditation on death (I can’t make the hills/ The system is shot/ I’m living on pills/ For which I thank God). And in the album opener Happens To The Heart, he reflects with his characteristic humbleness on his career (I was always working steady/ But I never called it art/ I was funding my depression/ Meeting Jesus reading Marx).

With Thanks For The Dance, penned and sung in his final days, Cohen gives his ageing fans, many of whom may be grappling with thoughts of dying and reflections of the past, a soundtrack for our twilight years. Sometimes, after a great novel concludes, there is an epilogue, a postscript that looks, a bit dispassionately perhaps, at what has happened before. Cohen’s 2016 album was the concluding chapter in the career of contemporary music’s best poet laureate. Thanks For The Dance is the epilogue to remember him by. Like all good postscripts, it evokes memories of the past, and, at least for me, it has meant rediscovering the great musician’s catalogue of past albums—all 14 of them that preceded Thanks For The Dance.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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