In October of 2016 Leonard Cohen released You Want It Darker, the final album of his lifetime. If Bowie had Blackstar, Cohen had this—a seemingly prophetic peacemaking with his final bow. Nineteen days later, Cohen died—he’d been suffering from leukemia along with compression fractures of his spine—and his haunting, reverberating voice, along with his poetic lyricism was, seemingly, extinguished.
All of which makes today’s release of a new—yes, new—Leonard Cohen record all the more improbable, and all the more of a cause for celebration. The nine songs on Thanks for the Dance are “not the dregs—the discarded B sides, the junk drawer leftovers,” said Cohen’s son Adam the other night at a private listening session and record-release party at a townhouse in SoHo. “No, this is vital, beautiful, stirring work.”
Cohen, you see, didn’t work off-the-cuff; he didn’t do improv. The songs you hear on his 14 studio albums were meticulously written, rewritten, refined, and rewritten again—sometimes over a period of decades. And as he stared down the end of his life, he didn’t intend for this new batch of songs—then in various states of completion, with some of them semi-finished, while others with only Cohen’s vocal take recorded—to go unheard.
“In the making of You Want It Darker, a theme emerged—mortality, God,” said Adam. “It was a goodbye—but that’s not the way it started. My father was working on many, many songs simultaneously, and we’d begun many of them. And they weren’t discarded because they weren’t to his taste; they were discarded because they didn’t belong to this theme that was emerging.” After You Want It Darker was released, father laid down a mandate to son: “Please, complete the task; finish what we started.”
And so it was that, seven months after Cohen passed away, Adam said he “finally got the courage to go into my little backyard studio and fire up the rig, and there was his voice...and suddenly I found myself in his company again—I found myself sitting with my dad and resuming these conversations.”
In short order, a roster of artists—including Leslie Feist; Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire; longtime Cohen collaborator Jennifer Warnes; Bryce Dessner from The National; and legendary producer, guitarist, and songwriter Daniel Lanois—was assembled to flesh out the songs. It should be noted here that the intention wasn’t to interpret Cohen’s songs for a new audience or a new generation, nor was it to showcase the unique capabilities of this stellar lineup of musicians. “No one was saying, ‘This is my opportunity to shine on a Leonard Cohen record,’” Adam said. “It reminded me of the Jewish tradition of bringing a rock to the tombstone—each one of them, one by one, was bringing their little contribution, their gesture of honor.” (There’s a short video documenting the making of the record that’s also out today.)
The intention—clearly felt by all—was to finish Cohen’s unfinished songs, as much as possible, in the very same way that Cohen himself might have done. Warnes’s vocals will be instantly recognizable to the Cohen fan, as will the guitar work of Javier Mas, who played with Cohen for eight years and flew in from Spain to record these new songs—but if other musical motifs, from instrumentation to chord changes, sound as if they were directed by Cohen himself, well...perhaps they were.
“One of the only advantages that I have over far more accomplished record makers,” Adam said, “is that I really knew what my father liked and what he disliked—and so oftentimes when we would try something, it was so evident when it didn’t work. He would say, ‘No, no, no—turn that down.’ And we would follow his instructions.”
Earlier, when his father was still alive but frail and in great pain (but still, let it be known, dressing in a suit and tie as he had for the entirety of his life), Adam and recording engineer Michael Travis had set up a microphone and a laptop on Cohen’s dining room table. “We saw him delivering these incredible vocals with relative ease, one after another, and I remember saying to him, ‘Dad—how are you doing this?’ And he said, ‘I’m locked in this little apartment—I can’t go anywhere, so I have nothing but time to study how each syllable falls.’”
That study paid off: As Adam and crew set about finishing his father’s work, those vocals served as a kind of North Star. “There was so much information in those vocals,” Adam said. “The position, the intention, the narratorship, the command of language, the charting of emotion through the delivery. It was almost thespian-like, and it dictated a lot.”
“There was nothing more important to him than the work. He said to me at the very end, ‘Adam, I have tried everything—I’ve tried Buddhism, Christianity, Scientology, antidepressants, acid, speed, women—there’s nothing I haven’t tried, and the only thing I understand now is that the solace was only going to come from one thing in this life, and that’s blackening a page in a work.’ And [Michael and I] realized that he was going to pass the moment he stopped working. It was what he was living for.”
There’s one final Leonard Cohen recording that we heard at the listening session—what turned out to be the last thing Cohen and his son ever recorded. It’s a spoken-word piece, a kind of benediction, recorded at the end of the You Want It Darker sessions, and when it was played at the end of the rest of Thanks for the Dance the other night, a wave of quiet emotion permeated the high-ceilinged room. And while it would be beyond foolish to try to paraphrase it, suffice to say it’s a kind of well-wishing to the listener—that they may be happy, fulfilled, surrounded by loved ones (or, alternately, at peace in solitude). It’s not on the new record, and it will likely never be released.
“When he did it,” Adam said, “I literally got choked up. I had tears in my eyes, and I said, ‘Dad, that’s so powerful.’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘You sop.’ And then he said, ‘No fucking way I’m putting that on the record.’”
Originally Appeared on Vogue