It would be easy to write this album off as a purely timbre-driven memento of an old musician where the melodies are merely accepted rather than appreciated. As a whole, though, the melodies are much more than just placeholders; they express timelessness and exemplify great musicality at work. In a setting where melody could have easily been brushed aside, Cohen really tried to create intriguing lines to grasp the attention of the listener and give more effect to the music. In most cases, he succeeded in doing so. One may get the impression that his voice can no longer carry a strong melody, but that is simply incorrect. That line of thought focuses on the timbre and not the melody. Regardless of the sound quality, there was a good amount of melodic intrigue found on You Want It Darker. The song “On The Level” has a surprisingly excellent shape to it along with good pacing that sounds both appropriate and fresh. Other songs with nice melodic shape included “Treaty” and “If I Didn’t Have Your Love”, both of which have the power to get stuck in your head despite its rather background role. “String Reprise/Treaty” ends the album with the only song that is spearheaded by melody and does so incredibly well. The rest of the songs did enough melodically to maintain interest and help progress the overall direction of the music, even if the melodies weren’t very captivating anyways. Only the song “Traveling Light” left me with an odd and unstable melodic feel, even though it too provided nice identifiable features. No listener is going to enjoy this album solely because of the melodies, but that’s perfectly okay. Within the archaic, somber, and thoughtful setting of this album, there is a wonderfully surprising amount of nuance and care for melody, which does enough to sound consistent with the other elements and create a handful of marvelous songs.
Cohen’s musicianship truly shines through in this album with his harmonic language. Just like the melody, Cohen could have brushed it off and most listeners may not have blinked an eye. It’s possible that he could have simply written nine different 12-bar blues tracks that would still sound fitting (he only wrote one semi 12-bar blues in fact). Instead, the listener gets a colorful and daring sonic platform for most of the album that take the songs into new yet comfortable directions. The songs “Treaty” and “Steer Your Way” had well thought out harmonic progressions with nice shifts and surprising movement using unique chord collections. They happened to be my two favorite songs on the album. I felt a slight dip in harmonic vigor and endeavor on the second half of the album in “Traveling Light” and “It Seemed the Better Way”, which both used the chords i, iv, and V almost exclusively without music creative manipulation to them. The rest of the songs all had wonderful uses of surprising chords and kept the music fun and easy to follow along with. Cohen’s harmonic creativity gave You Want It Darker its own unique flair and pushed it into the level of greatness.
If there’s one thing that listeners will enjoy about this album, it’s the sound itself. Fans of Cohen will without a doubt continue to praise him for his warm, easygoing grooves that he’s done so well for 50 years. His ability in You Want It Darker to get listeners to believe in what he’s saying through lyrics alone is quite remarkable. None of this so far is really surprising or riveting based on the mood that Cohen was after. What is remarkable about the timbre is that amount of surprise that successfully exists within the sound. The male choir in “You Want It Darker” and “It Seemed the Better Way” provided a great shock of awe and wonder. The gorgeous strings in “Treaty” and “Steer Your Way” were expertly used. While I didn’t particularly like the use of strings in “Leaving the Table”, I thoroughly enjoyed the neat guitar interlude and overall pace of the small texture. The piano in “Treaty”, “On the Level”, and “If I Didn’t Have Your Love” made excellent use of tessitura and harmonic presentation that you’d think Cohen has written much more solo piano music in his career. On top of all that were the effortless and well-crafted grooves that rounded out the album brilliantly and it truly worthwhile to listen to. Cohen’s low and raspy voice doesn’t necessarily help matters in a musical sense, but its level of genuineness and humanness lends itself well to the themes he has written about. Perhaps a bit more experimentation with textural builds and collapses would have fueled the magic of the sound more. In any case, the timbres as a whole gave an incredibly consistent feel of earnestness and thoughtfulness throughout the album.
Leonard Cohen is one of the most successful songwriters of the past 50 years. He has one of the most recognizable names in music, and has delivered another work of art out of nowhere. At 82 years old, this could very well be his last big musical output, which will only enhance the projected influence of the album. It is short, succinct, and majestic. Cohen fan or not, everyone should give this album a listen if they seek enlightenment through music. There are songs of love, life, beauty, and pain that are presented in a musically inventive way. If nothing else, listen to the album out of plain respect for the man. He deserves every bit of it.
Final Score: 149/180