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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Leonard Cohen celebrates his birthday with a new death song

Illustration for article titled Leonard Cohen celebrates his birthday with a new death song

Today is Leonard Cohen’s 82nd birthday, and he’s marking the occasion the way you’d expect: a little cake and a few rounds of pinball, followed by some apocalyptic brooding about murder and misery. That last, foreboding present is actually for us to open in the form of a chilling new single titled “You Want It Darker,” which was released in tandem with the announcement of Cohen’s forthcoming, 14th album of the same name. Due on Oct. 21—appropriately enough, just in time for Samhain and the beginning of the “darker,” more Cohen-appropriate half of the year—You Want It Darker continues a renewed period of productivity for Cohen that’s included 2012’s Old Ideas, 2014’s Popular Problems, and several extensive world tours.


That Cohen is still releasing and performing music at his age, after nearly a half-century in the business, is particularly welcome in a year marked by the deaths of other seeming immortals like Prince and David Bowie, whose Blackstar was similarly a birthday gift that immediately became a portentous omen in the wake of his passing. Given Cohen’s age, it’s difficult not to read a sense of finality into his own muttering of “I’m ready, my Lord” here, which he delivers in a subwoofer-shaking, cryptkeeper’s growl. That’s especially true in light of the letter he wrote to long-ago muse Marianne Ihlen last month, promising he wouldn’t be far behind her.

But then again, Cohen—dubbed a Serious Old Man way back in ’85—has been contemplating mortality since his very first album, yet still he’s returned enough times to shift the definition of “late-period Leonard Cohen” by several decades. So for now, let’s just welcome another entry into that estimable catalog and be comforted by the fact that he’s still here, discomfiting us in the way only he can. “You Want It Darker” is a hushed, haunting number described as “an unflinching exploration of the religious mind” whose dark night of the soul rumination is given a reverent, churchly stillness by backing vocals from Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir. If Cohen really is ready to take his leave, this is a beautifully fitting parting gift.

You Want It Darker tracklist—with song-by-song descriptions—via Rolling Stone:

1. “You Want It Darker”

Hypnotic groove. The surprise of a great synagogue choir. An unflinching exploration of the religious mind.

“Didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim.”

2. “Treaty”

One of Cohen’s signature melodies. A confession of the selfishness of love and the hope of a correction.

“Only one of us was real—and that was me.”

3. “On the Level”

An old man’s take on desire.

“I was fighting with temptation, but I didn’t want to win”

4. “Leaving the Table”

A slow, relentless, and somehow joyous ballad of letting it all go by. A guitar solo you will remember.

“I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game.”

5. “If I Didn’t Have Your Love”

A classic Cohen love song: the deep gratitude felt by one heart opening to another.

“That’s how broken it would be,

what the world would seem to me,

if I didn’t have your love to make it real.”

6. “Traveling Light”

A seeker hits the road and finds the joys of solitude.

“I’m traveling light

It’s au revoir

My once so bright

My fallen star”

7. “It Seemed the Better Way”

The feeling of a prayer that’s been there forever, but the spiritual comforts of the past no longer available.

“Lift this glass of blood, try to say the grace.”

8. “Steer Your Way”

A song of courage as the heart moves into the darkness.

“Steer your heart past the pain that is far more real than you.”

9. String Reprise/Treaty

A brilliant reimagining of “Treaty” as a string quartet; a truly glorious moment ending with a few words from Leonard himself.

“I wish there was a treaty we could sign.”