Leonard Cohen’s third act

At 82, Leonard Cohen released a poignant album, ’You Want It Darker.’ He thought that it could well be his last.
Leonard Cohen is a Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and novelist. Cohen quietly announced to fans a long-anticipated concert tour. The tour, Cohen's first in 15 years, began in May 2008 and encompassed Canada and Europe and included performing at The Big Chill (music festival) and headlined the 2008 Glastonbury Festival on 29 June 2008. (Michael Donald/eyevine/Redux)
Leonard Cohen. (Michael Donald/eyevine/Redux)

Update, Nov. 10, 2016: Leonard Cohen has passed away at the age of 82, as his label Sony Music Canada has confirmed. Here is Maclean’s final profile of the Canadian visionary, discussing an album that grappled with his mortality. Share your stories of your life and Leonard Cohen here.

By now Leonard Cohen is such a national treasure that we take him for granted. As if he’s always been with us. In a sense he has. His confidential baritone, which gets immeasurably deeper as the years go by, echoes between the bedroom and the Bible like some pre-Cambrian catacomb of the soul. It’s a voice that sounds older than Canada, older than time—and the voice of an artist who now seems acutely aware that his days are numbered.

On Sept. 21, Leonard Cohen—poet, singer-songwriter, Zen Buddhist monk, rabbinical joker, and ladies’ man emeritus—turned 82. One month later, he will release his 14th studio album, a bone-chilling yet passionate contemplation of mortality called You Want It Darker. It’s a deft title, reminding us that the artist who once dubbed himself “the grocer of despair” has always liked to deflect solemnity with the backhanded wit of a gravedigger trapped in a gold mine.

FROM 2012: Leonard Cohen’s tale of redemption

But You Want It Darker is not just another Leonard Cohen album about love and death. Crowning a career that saw him perform a triumphant world tour in his late seventies, it arrives as a sad and monumental milestone. With music fit for a requiem, and songs that take dramatic vows of abdication (“I’m leaving the table / I’m out of the game”), it may well be his last album. It’s certainly one of his best. The record’s procession of nine songs unfolds with the grace and gravitas of a last will and testament. And what’s especially poignant is that it was produced by the artist’s son, singer-songwriter Adam Cohen, who captures his father’s voice with unprecedented intimacy.

Leonard recorded the album at his home in Los Angeles under extreme duress. Afflicted by “severe back injuries, and other disagreeable visitations,” he says he abandoned the record after “a year of intense labour,” only to be rescued by his 45-year-old son. “Adam sensed that my recovery, if not my survival, depended on my getting back to work,” Leonard writes in the album liner notes. “He took over the project, established me in a medical chair to sing, and brought these songs to completion.” In a recent email interview, Leonard told me he was suffering from “multiple compression fractures in the spine,” and that “Adam got me out of bed to finish this record.”

A photo taken in my father’s living room (place of the majority of the recording for the album), in Los Angeles. (Michael Chaves)
Adam Cohen in his father’s living room in Los Angeles. (Michael Chaves)

Asked if he made the album feeling it would be his last, he said, “Not specifically, but at this stage in the game, you know that all your activities are subject to abrupt cancellation.” Adam hesitated to talk about “these delicate issues,” but said, “There’s something about this record—if it is his last—that is fitting the theme of the story. He’s really at the summit of his powers.”

It was the first time Leonard and his son had collaborated. “It involved quite an effort,” Adam recalls, speaking by phone from Montreal, where he’s now recording his own fourth album. “There were only a few hours a day that we could work. I was dealing with an ailing old man, but an ailing old man who was showing paranormal levels of devotion and focus, and that rubbed off on everybody. The encounters were urgent and sweet and meaningful. It was as if we were riding some kind of mysterious wind.” When he asked his father how he was managing to deliver “the most compelling vocals he’d ever produced, the answer was his condition.” As Leonard sang through the pain, “his immobilized condition led to a giant decrease in distraction. Through monastic training, or something, he had the resources to deal with this acute physical discomfort.”

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The mood, however, was leavened by “an enthusiasm that we were onto something special,” adds Adam. “There were fits of laughter woven throughout what was a very serious endeavour. There were episodes where I saw an incapacitated old man stand up and dance in front of the speakers. There were hilarious, esoteric arguments fuelled by medical marijuana. There were episodes of blissful joy that sometimes lasted hours, where we’d listen to one song on repeat like teenagers. There were smiles and an inner glow that I can actually hear on the record.”

Adam’s spare but exquisite production frames his father’s words with a new kind of musical architecture. Gone are the cold electronic keyboards of earlier records, replaced by warm waves of violin and cello. And the chorus of female harmonies that usually mirror Leonard’s vocals is almost entirely absent. Instead, a cantor male choir accompanies him for the first time. “That was just one in a long line of indications the record was going to be different,” says Adam. “The record has authority and originality and truth. It rises above sloganeering—his own past sloganeering.”

Related: Leonard Cohen’s tale of redemption

Leonard had already been thinking about a male choir when Adam suggested it, and immediately sent his son the contact for a cantor at the Cohens’ family synagogue, the Shaar Hashomayim Congregation in Montreal’s Westmount. “Our light bulbs lit up at the same time,” says Leonard. “I always wanted to work with these singers. I had been playing a lot a cantorial music, wondering how to fit it in.”

Founded in 1846, Shaar Hashomayim is Canada’s oldest and largest Ashkenazi synagogue, and has been at the heart of the Cohen clan for generations—both Leonard’s great-grandfather and grandfather served as presidents. Over the years his aunt, Ruth Cohen, had been sending him recordings of the synagogue’s music, and Leonard had struck up an email friendship with cantor Gideon Zelermyer. Early one morning, the cantor woke up to a message from Leonard asking if he’d like to collaborate on the new album, saying “I’m looking for the sound of the synagogue cantor choir of my youth.” Recalls Zelermyer: “I screamed ‘Holy s–t!’ at the top of my lungs, waking up everyone in the house. I wrote back and said, ‘Hallelujah! I’m your man!’ ”

FROM 2008: Watch Brian D. Johnson’s backstage interview with Cohen

The 40-year-old cantor has sung national anthems at Habs and Blue Jays games, but moonlighting for Leonard Cohen was clearly a bigger deal. When he heard the title track of You Want It Darker, and realized some of the lyrics are lifted directly from Hebrew liturgy, the weight of his mission began to sink in. “Leonard doesn’t throw these things around loosely,” he says. “The thing that hit me in the face is when he sings: ‘Magnified and sanctified / Be thy holy name,’ which are the words of the Kaddish prayer—and the most powerful association of the Kaddish is with death and mourning. It all started to make sense to me. This is a person who is struggling with the end of things, and he’s turned to his cantor, to his rabbi, to his religious roots.”

As the portrait of an artist at the edge of the abyss, You Want It Darker inevitably calls to mind David Bowie’s Blackstar, although there’s no indication that Cohen is dying—except in the sense that we all are, and that life is no country for old men. Asked how concern for his own mortality informed the album, he demurred: “These are matters which simply do not arise in the writing and recording of a song.” As for his condition, he said he’s “a little too weak to get out there and boogie, and a little too healthy to die. Work is not always sweet, but it’s always sustaining.”

Leonard Cohen performs on stage at Leeds Arena on September 7, 2013 in Leeds, England. (Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns/Getty Images)
Leonard Cohen performs on stage at Leeds Arena on September 7, 2013 in Leeds, England. (Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns/Getty Images)

Cohen’s work in fact, has done far more than sustain him in his twilight of a music career that has endured for half a century. He has enjoyed a spectacular third act that defies the laws of showbiz physics. By the time he entered his seventies, Cohen had retreated from the spotlight, and was living a quiet life in Los Angeles, with his children, Adam and Lorca, close by. His chronic depression had miraculously lifted, and he seemed in no hurry to do anything. Then in late 2004, after Lorca peeked into his finances, he was shocked to discover he was nearly broke. For years his friend and longtime manager, Kelley Lynch, had been selling off his publishing rights and draining millions of dollars from his savings. A lawsuit was launched and won, awarding Cohen $9 million, but he wasn’t able to recover the money. So in 2008, desperate to replenish his children’s inheritance, he mounted his first concert tour in 15 years.

The result was beyond anyone’s expectations—a critically acclaimed show that began in concert halls, expanded to sports arenas, and generated an epic series of world tours that spanned five years. It finally wound down in 2013, as an uncharacteristically jubilant Cohen enlivened his stage patter with a promise that he would take up smoking again when he turned 80. He played places he’d never visited, and drew large audiences across the United States for the first time. There’s no real precedent for this in pop music. Imagine: here was an artist who had gone years without a hit, and had spent much of the 1990s in seclusion in a Zen monastery on Mount Baldy, outside Los Angeles. Once down from the mountain, and living in the world’s showbiz capital, he walked the streets unrecognized. Then, with no album to promote, and no niche in celebrity culture, he hit the road. By his late seventies he was enjoying the greatest success of his entire career.

Why? It’s as if Cohen’s legend had been quietly seeping through the cultural bedrock all along. His 1984 classic, “Hallelujah,” had become ubiquitous, as cover versions by countless artists made it an inspirational standard (it popped up yet again just last weekend, underscoring the Emmys’ “in memoriam” tribute). His devotees, especially in Canada and Europe, were like a loyal army lying in wait for their leader’s return. And his show, which was impeccably produced and performed, generated new legions of fans.

First, a never published photo of my father, mother Suzanne Elrod, sister Lorca Cohen and me, taken in Montreal in 76 I think, by Hazel Field. (Adam Cohen)
Leonard Cohen, Adam Cohen, Adam’s mother, Suzanne Elrod and sister Lorca Cohen. Taken in Montreal, circa 1976, by Hazel Field.

The tour also rejuvenated Cohen’s songwriting. In 2012, Old Ideas, which he recorded at his home studio in L.A., became the best-selling album of his career in North America, winning critical raves and topping charts around the world. On turning 80, he won another round of acclaim for Popular Problems, a bluesy collection of wry and tender ballads that never failed to find the dark at the end of the tunnel, as he sang of “standing on this corner where there used to be street.” Yet, with a redemptive number called You Got Me Singing—“Even tho’ it all looks grim / You got me singing / The Hallelujah hymn”—Cohen showed he still had some spring in his step as he danced ever closer to the edge.

“They say that life is a beautiful play with a terrible third act,” says Adam. “But my father’s third act has been one of the most extraordinary and unexpected and triumphant chapters in his life.” He talks about the comeback with the reverence of a son who has finally given up trying escape his father’s shadow. You can hear shades of the father in his soft bevelled diction, in the care Adam takes to choose his words. And there are times when the timbre of his voice conjures a young, yearning Leonard. Adam traces his change in attitude to a personal crisis about 10 years ago: “I had essentially quit the music business. I had a bitter sense of disappointment with my own career choices and accomplishments. Rather than focusing on what had preoccupied me before—which was sex, drugs and rock’n’roll—I refocused myself to honour my heritage. How lucky I am that I could finally escape my little orbit and be capable of working by his side.”

Adam says he was “surprised to be invited into the fold” and suspects that “my father was aware of the risk of impropriety or nepotism.” In fact, Leonard says he had no trepidation about his son producing the album: “His musical vocabulary is extensive and he has a commanding grasp of all the intricacies of recording. I knew the final record would have the imprint of his microscopic attention. I also enjoy his company.” Adam, who lives down the street from his father in L.A., began to help out when Leonard was immobilized by his back injury. “At first I thought I was just the coffee boy,” he says, “but I quickly rose in rank.” Initially his connection to the recording was through his friend Patrick Leonard, a veteran musician, composer and producer who has written hits for everyone from Madonna to Elton John. After Adam introduced him to his dad seven years ago, Patrick Leonard became Leonard Cohen’s cohort, writing music for Old Ideas and Popular Problems, which he produced, and co-writing four songs on the new album, for which he also produced four tracks.

You Want It Darker is not only Leonard Cohen’s most potent record since 1992’s The Future, it seems to pick up where its prophecy left off 24 years ago. The vision is equally dystopian, as he sings lines like “steer your way through the ruins of the Altar and the Mall.” But this time the apocalypse is personal. It’s a kind of break-up album, from someone who has broken up not just with the love of his life, but with God, the Devil and everything between. Once again it’s “Closing Time,” though now the dance floor is deserted and we’re in a temple, not a bar. Soaring over an ominous bass line, and framed by organ and choir, the title track proceeds like a prayer (ironic perhaps, considering the melody comes from Patrick Leonard, who wrote the music for Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”). Cohen’s lyrics are deceptively simple, yet lethal:

If you are the dealer

I’m out of the game

If you are the healer

I’m broken and lame

If thine is the glory

Then mine must be the shame

You want it darker

We kill the flame

While The Future’s vision was cauterized by sardonic rage, You Want It Darker aches with resignation. In “Treaty,” a song that Patrick Leonard says took seven years to complete, Cohen sings:

I wish there was a treaty we could sign

I do not care who takes the bloody hill

I’m angry and I’m tired all the time

Music on the album transcends lament and defies genre. It seems to slide around in a no-man’s land somewhere between blues and gospel and country. Patrick Leonard says in recent years he and the songwriter have been experimenting with: “What if it’s not any kind of song? What if it’s not music, what if it’s just stuff, a framework?” The record’s most starkly haunting track, “Seemed the Better Way,” hangs on a simple four-bar phrase from a weeping violin, played by Nashville ace David Davidson. But the track found another element, a ghostly chorus that Adam recorded in Montreal with the cantor’s 14-member choir—an ancient Hebrew motif that is traditionally sung as the benediction at Jewish festivals such as Passover and Yom Kippur. The passage, which sounds like an anchestral echo of the song’s violin melody, casts an unearthly spell. As Zelermeyer points out, Cohen’s name is derived from kohein, the Hebrew name for priest. So with this flash of serendipity, it’s as if Leonard’s own priestly heritage had finally come full circle, with his son connecting the dots.

“If you had to characterize my father’s work,” observes Adam, “you would say it’s mytho-romantic. But there’s something more urgent at stake in this record. The romantic element has been replaced by the mytho-theological. Of course that has to do with his age and preoccupations.” Then he adds: “One of the reasons Leonard Cohen is one of the last men standing from that golden era is that he’s actually dealing with subjects that are pertinent to his own place on the rung of life.”

Not that You Want It Darker is engraved on stone tablets, or that romance is entirely absent from the record. Cohen does sing one pure, heartbreaking ballad, “If I Didn’t Have Your Love,” which employs the apocalypse as a metaphor to measure his devotion:

If no leaves were on the tree

And no water in the sea

And the break of day

Had nothing to reveal

That’s how broken I would be

What my life would seem to me

If I didn’t have your love

To make it real

The album is not all dark. “Traveling Light” lopes along as a nostalgic au revoir, brimming with warmth as Leonard tips his hat, “running late” before they “close the bar.” And its climactic song, “Steer Your Way,” navigates toward a crack in the gloom with an unwavering determination reminiscent of “First We Take Manhattan.”

But what is most arresting about the album is the tenderness of Leonard’s voice, as he finds the sweet spot between singing and talking. It’s like a great actor being filmed in extreme close-up, and drawing us into the moment. You have to wonder how much came from precious moments that passed between father and son in the studio. “Wanting to serve my father faithfully was at the core of this project,” says Adam, “wanting to impress him as a son would want to impress a father.” Which doesn’t mean there wasn’t friction. “There was wrestling and deliberation. Like a good jury, we made choices on every song.” But as Leonard confirms, “Of course I had the final veto.”

Two questions went unanswered in my email interview with Leonard: how his pain affected his studio performance, and whether he was single or attached. “I’m not going to talk about my ‘pain,’ not in this world,” he said. As for his personal life, he deserves whatever mystery he can find.

In his twilight years, it seems Leonard has come to hold dear his family and his past. He’s clearly close to Adam and Lorca; he and their mother, Suzanne Elrod, parted ways in 1978. He has two grandchildren: Adam’s son, Cassius, 8; and Lorca’s daughter, Viva, 5 (fathered by singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, whose husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, is designated as “deputy dad.”)

Last July, two days before the death of former lover and muse Marianne Ihlen—who inspired “So Long Marianne” and “Bird on a Wire”—she received a touching letter from him. “Marianne,” he wrote, “it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine . . . Endless love, see you down the road.”

Will Leonard Cohen ever make another record? No one seems to know, including Leonard. But he and Patrick Leonard continue to work together. “I’m not much of an optimist,” says Cohen’s collaborator. “But Leonard won’t be done until he’s done, and I don’t think he’s done. His strength is profound. He’s going to keep going, as long as he can put a pencil to paper and get to a microphone.”