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Albums of the Year: Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker | reviews, news & interviews

Albums of the Year: Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker

Albums of the Year: Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker

Music at death's door from a late master - and other intimations of mortality

'Always an apostle of slowness': Leonard Cohen

Popular music works best when it strikes a chord that goes beyond the beauty of the hook, the seductive quality of the melody, or the catchiness of the lyrics. The resonance can be personal or universal, or perhaps, in order to qualify as a critic’s choice as album of the year, it should be both. Leonard Cohen’s last album, made in the full knowledge that it would be his last, spoke to me with a directness and depth that induced a paradoxical mixture of pleasure and pain.

Cohen was, it would seem, born wise, and a certain native maturity coloured his work from the start. As he revisited over the years the themes of abandonment, loss and grief, there was no real sense of progress, only a gentle hammering away at the wounds that we all share and of which he spoke with such eloquence. The darkness of his concerns was redeemed by a biting sense of the absurd and knowledge that the human comedy will never cease to produce both laughter and horror.

Long gone the Scandinavian muse to whom he sang so many decades ago

Cohen was always an apostle of slowness: his last three albums gradually moved towards a sloth’s stately slow-motion, a last-ditch Zen monk’s cry against the frantic acceleration that drives the 21st century world. You Want It Darker speaks of the shadow of our hyped-up civilisation, riffing on the despair that drives us in a manic cycle of peaks and troughs, a dionysiac dance on the edge of the abyss. This is a timely album in every sense, as if death’s presence at Cohen’s side had whispered guidance to him as he wrote and performed the songs. Long gone the Scandinavian muse to whom he sang so many decades ago, although the beauty he found through her backaways still gives his songs a brilliance that shines through their melancholy cloud-cover.

Mortality is in the air – a sign of decadence, perhaps: the end of an era for which the myth of infinite progress provided a blinding and misleading leitmotiv. David Bowie’s Blackstar and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree are both haunted by the grim reaper: with Bowie, the knowledge that his days were over, and for Nick Cave, the tragic and premature accidental death of his 15 year-old son. As with Cohen, proximity to tragedy, finiteness and loss produced work of great beauty, and these are albums that provide fitting companions for Cohen’s last goodbye. These works all speak eloquently yet mysteriously of the spirit, of things about which it is usually better to remain silent, and that can only be obliquely evoked through the combination of music and poetry.

Beyond the realm of 2016’s albums, tracks and gigs, I won’t easily forget moments of surprising and totally magical intimacy with Björk, at the breathtaking virtual reality exhibition at Somerset House, Björk Digital. And the track which has perhaps given me the most sustained pleasure over the year – “Bururú Burará, Como Esta Miguel” by the fabulous Sexteto Habañero, masters of early son. That was recorded in the 1920s but sounds as fresh as anything made today.

Two more essential albums from 2016 

Bon Iver - 22, A Million

Sidestepper - Supernatural Love

Gig of the Year

Sidestepper at WOMAD, Charlton Park

Track of the year

Bon Iver - "20 ♯Strafford APTS"


Overleaf: listen to "20 ♯Strafford APTS" by Bon Iver

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