Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker” Is Ecclesiastes For Modern Times
The late, great Leonard Cohen spent a lifetime in the shadows, yearning for the light in song and verse. It is therefore fitting that what he himself identified as his final album is entitled, “You Want It Darker.” The album title seems to refer both to Cohen’s fans, and to the Lord to whom he addresses most of its songs. Living in a world in which God seems to allow endless suffering, and in which his distinctive brand of introspective melancholia has consoled generations of fans, Cohen is well aware of the part he plays.
Abandoning the themes of love and lust that dominated the early part of his career — “The wretched beast is tame,” he comments in one song — Cohen turns his attention to mortality, organized religion, and the inevitable curtain call that awaits each of us. Snatches of melody and scraps of phrase echo some of his earlier work, but the album stands very much on its own, as a new and cohesive musical and philosophical statement.
Although I call it, “new,” much of “You Want It Darker” reminded me of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which this album seems to echo. As that text famously observed, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Like the unnamed preacher who authored Ecclesiastes (widely thought to be King Solomon the wise), Cohen has tasted everything the world has to offer — from luxury and decadence, to asceticism and poverty — and found it ultimately empty.
Consider this — Ecclesiastes 2:10–11
Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them.
I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure,
For my heart rejoiced in all my labor;
And this was my reward from all my labor.
Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done
And on the labor in which I had toiled;
And indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind.
And then this lyric, from Cohen’s song, “Traveling Light.”
I’m traveling light
It’s au revoir
My once so bright
My fallen star
I’m running late
They’ll close the bar
I used to play
One mean guitar
I guess I’m just
Has given up
On the me and you
I’m not alone
I’ve met a few
Traveling light like
We used to do
It is a common mistake to misinterpret both Ecclesiastes and Cohen’s work as depressing and nihilistic. After a hedonistic youth and hard-working middle-age, both authors address their Creator as fragile mortals with more reflections then regret. Cohen has never been big on apologies (nor was Solomon), and this album is no different. He looks back on his long life, not to feel sorry for himself, but to ask and answer the question, “What have I learned?”
The ultimate message of Ecclesiastes — the author’s solution to the problem of everything being “vanity and grasping for the wind,” — is that it is best to live each day with as much simplicity and joy as possible, without searching or expecting for deep meaning. Fulfillment is not found in fame, fortune or heroic deeds, it is found in the simple moments of everyday life. Here is Ecclesiastes 9:7–9.
Go, eat your bread with joy,
And drink your wine with a merry heart;
For God has already accepted your works.
Let your garments always be white,
And let your head lack no oil.
Live joyfully with the wife whom you love
all the days of your vain life which He has given you under the sun,
all your days of vanity; for that is your portion in life,
and in the labor which you perform under the sun.
Cohen seems to have reached a similar conclusion. Here is an excerpt from “Leaving The Table” (one of Cohen’s many songs to reference imagery of gamblers and dealers).
There’s nobody missing
There is no reward
Little by little
We’re cutting the cord
We’re spending the treasure
That love cannot afford
I know you can feel it
The sweetness restored
He has always felt deeply — perhaps too deeply — and therefore his music appeals to those who feel deeply. “If Leonard can withstand these emotions,” we think to ourselves, “then I can too.”
At the very beginning of the album, Cohen sings, in his gravelly basso profundo :
You want it darker
We kill the flame
If you are the dealer
I’m out of the game
Yet, despite its somber tone, this is not the music of a man who has given up on life. Cohen is “out of the game,” not because he has lost, but because he sees that the game is not worth playing. He is not referring to life itself, but to what he called “Boogie Street” in my favorite of his albums, “Ten New Songs.” It’s a concept more commonly referred to as “the rat race.” Just as Solomon did, some 2,400 years ago, Cohen looks at the constant struggle for status, position and wealth, and sees it for what it is: grasping for the wind.
“You Want It Darker” lives up to the promise of its title. It unflinchingly plumbs the depths of human emotion. But, just like the book of Ecclesiastes, its gloomy observations and grim demeanor frame in sharp relief a fierce and inextinguishable spark of hope.