“I am ready to die,” Leonard Cohen told The New Yorker in the weeks leading up to the release of his latest, and final, studio album You Want It Darker. I was in London on the day Cohen turned 82 and released the single of the same name. I remember listening to it at night in my hostel with the lights off. I remember thinking it was a change of pace from his two previous albums. For one, this track featured a male choir when Cohen typically uses female backing vocals. Also, 2012’s Old Ideas we Cohen cleaning out his attic and 2014’s Popular Problems was the sound of Cohen enjoying his late career renaissance. The new generation of fans clamored for a return to tonal form. They wanted the Cohen who could sing of misery. They wanted it darker. Not only was it a gift to his fans, it was a conscious statement that Cohen accepted he wouldn’t be around for long.
When I listened to “You Want It Darker,” I knew it meant more than just a n aesthetic shift. I could hear what Cohen was saying. He knew he didn’t have much time left when he made this record and he shared that revelation with me. So, when news hit me last week that Cohen had passed, I was shocked. Saddened, yes, but it was expected.
I really hate writing in memoriams. I really do. Mostly, this song this is meant to talk about songs I have been thinking about lately. But, it also a way for me to pay tribute to certain artists who have had an impact on me. Though, I try to be careful when I write about them as I have a rule to never repeat an artist. For artists that I truly love, the time should feel right to talk about just one song in their entire catalogue and try to summarize why they mean so much for me. When I write about an artist that recently passes, the narrative of everything changes and it becomes an unfortunately timed tribute amidst an entire digital landscape of tributes. I waited too long so death dictates the message and that message becomes eclipsed.
Cohen’s career is one of few where I appreciate everything he’s done. Prior to becoming a musician and songwriter, he was already an accomplished poet and novelist. I’ve read his early poetry as well as his controversial novel Beautiful Losers. I do enjoy the critically-acclaimed parts of his early career which gave the world “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire.” From there, Cohen loses his touch and his music becomes overproduced and hokey. Albums such as Death of a Ladies’ Man, I’m Your Man, and The Future. But, you know what? I love those albums too!
Later, broke and irrelevant, Cohen joins a monastery for several years where he lives a disciplined life and writes poems that would later appear in his 2006 collection Book of Longing. When he checks out of the monastery, this is the start of a career renaissance. Tours during the late 2000s proved to be commercially and critically successful (I even attended a 2009 show in Nashville). He tests new songs out on the road which would late be recorded for the trio of albums that would make up his comeback. Thanks to help from his son Adam, Cohen dropped that highly stylized production in favor of a more stripped down aesthetic and created a new mystique that enticed old and new fans alike. While many people his age would’ve just called it quits, Cohen went to find himself and came out stronger for it.
As I said, I love every part of Cohen’s career. If I had written this piece on him prior to his death, I probably would’ve picked a track from my favorite album I’m Your Man. However, he is gone now. I’ve been listening to him since 2007, so I have had ample time to explore his career. While new fans may look towards the classics or even his releases within the last few years, I want to focus on the album that represents his commercial and critical low point.
1977’s Death of a Ladies’ Man, despite being a maligned record, is one I absolutely love. First off, the album sounds astonishingly different than anything else he had recorded prior or since. At the production helm was Phil Spector, the legendary and notorious record producer who gave the world “The Wall of Sound.” If you had ever listened to Cohen prior to 1977, you would know that Cohen’s quiet presence doesn’t mesh well with a sonic wall of orchestral instrumentation and swirling background vocals. You can hear Cohen get lost in the mixing as everything around him overpowers his voice.
The closing track “Death of a Ladies’ Man” is where Spector’s wall of sound is the most evident. Exceeding nine minutes, the track is a melancholic opus about a man’s frustration with women. Most likely about Cohen, there is defeat and loss throughout the record. But, there is a lot of love there too. Something is being lost between two people. Could they be lovers or just people with a shared brokenhearted view of love? Lyrically, it’s a very complex and vague song that bears repeated listening while reading the liner notes. Musically, it is an overproduced mess that has charm. Spector’s work gives the song a distant and unearthly feel that makes it seem like a fairy tale more than something Cohen experienced.
While the album Death of a Ladies’ Man will never be held to high regard as some of Cohen’s other work, it isn’t one that should be missed. It has it’s own unique appeal that signifies that start of a period in Cohen’s career where production overshadows the songwriting. And it wouldn’t be something he corrected for another 35 years. Cohen is missed. The whole world felt his passing. Even Saturday Night Live commemorated his passing when Kate McKinnon, as Hillary Clinton, appropriated the song for the purpose of instilling hope in people disappointed in last week’s election (myself included). However, please do yourself a favor. Cherish “Hallelujah,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and “Suzanne,” but don’t forget the songs where Leonard lost himself for there was still light in the darkness.