by William Kast
In November 2016, Leonard Cohen released his album You Want it Darker. Just weeks later, he was gone. Much more than an accompaniment to tragedy, it was the great writer’s best work in many years. But Cohen’s profound and timely meditation on death would not be his last album. Compiling and completing unfinished ideas from the You Want it Darker sessions, Cohen’s son and producer Adam Cohen has shared Thanks for the Dance, Leonard Cohen’s first (and perhaps only) musical offering since his passing.
Any posthumous album deserves to be a hesitantly accepted gift. In Cohen’s case particularly, isn’t it sacrilege to share the unfinished work of the man who spent countless late nights in nothing but his underwear, banging his head against the floor, writing and discarding some 80 verses to “Hallelujah”? Nevertheless, the album is here, completed with a father’s blessing and assembled with the utmost care. But where does it fit in the Leonard Cohen canon?
The Leonard Cohen discography, beyond the sparest acoustic recording, is split into two parts: Leonard Cohen and The Other Stuff. Some notable features in this wide-ranging camp include Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound on Death of a Ladies’ Man and the spectacular Casio keyboard extravaganza I’m Your Man. Both equally ridiculous, but both part of the fun. Adam Cohen recruits an all-star cast to compose The Other Stuff on Thanks for the Dance, to minimal effect. Contributions from Beck, Feist, U2 producer Daniel Lanois, Damien Rice, and more assemble a dark wash of nylon strings, moody percussion, and the occasional orchestral or choral padding. Except for a couple of stumbles, the younger Cohen does a very good job staying out of the elder Cohen’s way. In a video feature published by La Blogothéque, collaborator Michael Chaves reverently discussed how at every step of the process the enlisted team of album-finishers asked: “would Leonard like this?” Ye of little faith. It’s hard to believe that his closest collaborators and admirers wouldn’t realize that the old man liked to have some fun once in a while.
And yet, a sense of fun, if not missing, is certainly suppressed on Cohen’s vocal performances as well. A physical pain can always be felt in the background of his impossibly deep voice, giving his performances a sense of dead set sincerity even if they’re sung with a grin that’s invisible to the microphone. It’s what makes songs like “The Night of Santiago,” a final tribute to Cohen’s hero Federico García Lorca, cross the threshold into the uncomfortable. It’s far from the first time Cohen has made sub-octave innuendos on record, but perhaps the flamenco claps and ever more strained voice make song more self-serious than the man would have let it come across had he been alive to sign off on it.
Fifty thousand cigarettes and several swimming pools of whiskey may be taking their toll on Cohen’s vocal performances more than they did on You Want it Darker, but they have made him a stunning reciter of his own poetry. “The Goal” and “Listen to the Hummingbird” are the two most touching moments on Thanks for the Dance. Performed as only spoken words in a halting, uncertain rhythm, they carry the painful question of whether they were performed as intended or if they were all that Adam Cohen was left with when his father passed, melodies yet to be determined. The especially thin and scratchy recording quality of “Listen to the Hummingbird” suggests the latter.
Thanks for the Dance is an alarmingly cohesive body of work. To put it gently, true believers of Cohen’s music have learned not to expect anything pleasant. The clash between music and lyrics were always part of the fun with Cohen’s music. His best work could leave a listener unsure whether to laugh, take up arms, have sex, or quietly cry. The contradictions of Leonard Cohen were one of the most enticing aspects of him as a person as well. He was born to a powerful family and chose a bohemian artist’s life. He was accepted as an honest-to-God gentleman despite an alarming fixation with hypnotism. He was a God-obsessed Buddhist Jew, downing bottle after bottle of cognac with his Zen master atop Mt. Baldy between rigorous meditations and writing poems about his erections. His favorite contradiction in his old age was “My reputation as a ladies’ man… a joke that caused me to laugh bitterly through the ten thousand nights I spent alone.” On Thanks for the Dance, there are no enticing contradictions. Leonard Cohen is the revered poet and songwriter, nothing more.
But is there anything wrong with that? Leonard Cohen has left the table, and there is no bringing him back. Who are we to turn up our noses at this gift from beyond the grave? It’s frustrating that this album cannot explain what made Leonard Cohen such a remarkable artist in the first place, but it is still a Leonard Cohen album through and through.
Not long before the release of You Want it Darker, I had heard “Famous Blue Raincoat” for the first time and read a New Yorker profile suggesting that Leonard Cohen was a very sexy thing to listen to. Soon I was past disc one of The Essential Leonard Cohen and had inhaled his autobiographical novel, The Favorite Game, in a couple of afternoons. By then I was hooked, probably for life. There is enough great Leonard Cohen work for a lifetime of discovery, and I am a ravenous fanatic who will accept anything, and certainly this imperfect but significant record. In an interview with NPR, Adam Cohen discussed a consultation with his father when he was considering giving up on an album of his own. The elder Cohen quickly dismissed it as an “amateur move,” saying “it’s not about how you feel, it’s about how the songs make them feel.” Adam Cohen is one of them, one of us. Thanks for the dance, Leonard.