In a Zen Monastery sometime ago
Jikan was sitting on a chair in the corner of the shared kitchen. He had just finished sweeping and cleaning the kitchen floor – a must for all the disciples. He peeped through the kitchen window to look at the sunlight that illuminated the chrome fenders of cars outside. He could go on like this for hours, without talking, eating or walking. Funnily enough, the name “Jikan” meant “ordinary silence”. He closed his eyes, remembering his former life – a life filled with sex, drugs and alcohol. He opened his eyes to look at the rhymes he’d written on a scrap of paper – a habit from his former life which he was never able to forgo. It’s been 20 years since he was ordained at the Mount Baldy Zen Centre, which was at a blood-thinning 6500 feet above sea level, and donned the flowing black robes.
He looked at his fragile hands. He’s 82 now and his body is weak. He was going to die soon. As he was sitting on the chair, other disciples were arranging his bed. One of the disciples placed a copy of the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead) by his bedside. It was customary for them to read the Bardo Thodol to the dying. This book contained a set of teachings designed to help the person accept and adapt to their death. Outside his cabin, monks were arranging a bed made of twigs as a part of the “Tibetan Sky Burial” ritual (A practice where the deceased is eaten by Vultures and other scavengers). Jikan hoped that the Vultures would be quick to feed on him, as this would be an indication that he would have an easy passage to the afterlife.
A younger disciple knocks on the kitchen door. Jikan knew that it was time to go.
Leonard Cohen’s 14th and final studio album embodies the classic spoken-word style popularized by his 1988 release, “I’m Your Man”. However, “You Want It Darker” is substantially different from the latter. In fact, his final album is much more like his earlier efforts. His voice, tender and lullaby-like, is reminiscent of his breakthrough song, “Suzanne”. Cohen was always quite different from other folk musicians. None of the other folk musicians boasted a light, monotonous tone akin to that of Cohen. A noted poet and novelist, he had the incredible ability to turn his prescient poetry into subdued and lo-fi ballads. He had always been an old-fashioned folk musician – laying greater emphasis on words than notes, thereby creating a serious discourse on poetry in music. Despite the evolution of the genre, Cohen’s albums were firmly entrenched in Christian, Hebrew and occasionally Buddhist themes. His albums sound like music composed by vagrants who roam from town to town singing folk ballads. Cohen was never interested in embracing the cultural zeitgeist, because to him, music was meant to be a private endeavor. He never liked public appearances, and rarely ever performed live. Thus, he became a constant threat to his record label. With his album sales dwindling, he was driven to the point of quitting multiple times. It was not until the release of 1992’s “The Future” that he finally found commercial success.
On “You Want It Darker”, Cohen focuses on individual tragedies. His slow, muttering voice on the opener reflects his “Life is like a bird on the wire” mentality. It is delicately arranged with harpsichords engulfed in the chants of a Buddhist Monastery. Despite the song’s delicateness, the lyrical content is heart-breaking. He sings about how it is God’s will for him to be broken and weak –
“If thine is the glory then
Mine must be the shame.”
“A Million Candles burning
For help that never came.”
In 1996, at the height of his career, Cohen decided to step back from music and take up Buddhism. He was ordained in a discreet ceremony held at the Mount Baldy Zen Centre. He stayed in the centre until 2009. His stay in the retreat seems to have inspired much of the music on this album. On the song, “On the level”, Cohen sings about his time in the monastery.
“Now I’m living in this temple
Where they tell you what to do
I’m old and I’ve had to settle
On a different point of view.”
Musically speaking, “On the level” is the most Cohen-esque song on the entire album. It starts off with a piano lead, which as the song progresses, is drowned in gospel-like female voices. The second track “Treaty” is another memorable song. A wonderful elegiac which is elevated to a chamber-pop piece during its progression. The fourth verse of this song contains one of the most spine-chilling lyrics of the album.
“I heard the snake was baffled by his sin
He shed his scales to find the scales within
But born again is born without a skin
The poison enters into everything.”
“Leaving the Table” is glittered with the presence of a tex-mex guitar and the song “If I Didn’t Have Your Love” starts off with an organ lead apart from the tex-mex guitar. These are simple formulaic songs similar to ones in his very early albums; “Songs of Leonard Cohen” and “Songs from a Room”. “Travelling Light” is the best chamber music that the album has to offer, arranged by Cohen’s son. The song includes a whole range of instruments from harpsichords to strings and guitar; layered by female vocals. “It Seemed the Better Way” includes the first dance beat of the album (though the title track also has a faint dance beat). The track starts off with a male choir and a sole violin playing over a droning, ominous organ. “Steer Your Way” is the true folk song of the record – with its strings embracing a bluegrassy, off-beat rhythm. The song is embedded with biblical themes with a clever reversal of a line from the famous American Abolitionist song, Battle Hymn of the Republic. Cohen reverses the iconic line, “As he died to make men holy/ Let us die to make men free” to “As he died to make men holy/ Let us die to make things cheap”. The final song “String Reprise/Treaty” is an overflow of strings until they slow down to welcome Cohen’s last recorded words. He ends it by saying, “It’s over now, the water and the wine” – indicating an end to all miracles and bidding a grim farewell.
Three weeks after the release of his album, on November 7, 2016, Leonard Cohen passed away. He was laid to rest in a simple pine casket at his family plot. His parables of sadness, sorrow and pain however, continue to outlive him. During these painful times, a bit of poignant realism from Cohen is warranted. As he sings on his wildly popular song, “Everybody Knows”
“And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it’s moving fast
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artefact of the past.”
Though Darker was his final album, it is not the only album where Cohen sings about goodbyes. In fact, he’s been bidding farewell to his listeners throughout his extensive music career. In a way, Cohen’s journey has been a series of relentless, self-composed epitaphs.