The master songwriter’s posthumous envoi arrives
Artist: Leonard Cohen
Album: Thanks for the Dance
Label: Legacy Recordings
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
The posthumous Leonard Cohen album is like an airport terminal, in that almost everyone will approach it with baggage.
Leonard left us on November 7, 2016, and not long after, Adam Cohen (who is also a singer/songwriter) set about making good on his vow. A couple of years later, we have the last truly new Leonard Cohen album the world will ever see, regardless of any archival spelunking that might occur in the future.
Nobody will come to Thanks for the Dance without expectations. Some will be looking for the sequel to its predecessor, You Want It Darker. Pessimists will be anticipating some kind of catastrophe in which Leonard’s last works are compromised by inappropriate arrangements. And others will want to hear the grand finale from one of the world’s greatest songwriters, with all that entails.
It’s certainly no spoiler to say that none of these expectations will be met. More reasonable souls will have sussed that out going in. The album must be taken instead for what it is. Adam, who worked closely with his father on his music in the final phase of the elder Cohen’s life, has a better idea of how he would have wanted the songs completed than anyone. But it’s still physically impossible for anybody to treat the songs exactly as Leonard would have. And while many of the nine tracks were still works in progress at the time of Cohen’s death, some had been started long before. And versions of at least a couple, including the title track and “Puppets” have existed at least since the 2000s. Consequently, much of what we hear on Thanks for the Dance was not written by a man with both eyes on the finish line of life.
For some, the biggest hurdle to hop over may be the fact that Leonard left many of his vocals behind without lending them melodies, delivering them instead in his gravitas-laden sprechgesang. Was this an aesthetic choice, or the result of his physical frailty, or did he simply not get around to coming up with melodies? It’s impossible to know. But anyone who claims that he wasn’t much of a melodist to begin with hasn’t listened closely enough (if at all), and Cohen’s innate tunefulness is missed here. But don’t forget he started out as a poet, and he knows how to put his words across even without the aid of melody.
Likewise, when “Happens to the Heart” seems to end abruptly, or “The Goal” turns out to be barely more than a minute in length, it’s tough not to wonder whether that was Leonard’s intention or he simply ran out of time. Again, one has to put such questions aside and just deal with what meets the ears. Fortunately, what meets the ears is very fine.
Lyrically, Cohen is as potent as ever here. A number of songs seem to be either about or addressed to lovers, which isn’t surprising considering his status as the eternal roué, but there’s usually a larger context — religion and war on “Happens to the Heart,” nature and metaphysics on “It’s Torn.” And even when he seems to be sticking to the prurient, as on “The Night of Santiago,” his lyrical heft is such that it scarcely matters. Anybody who can slip lines like “And soon there’s sand in every kiss/And soon the dawn is ready/And soon the night surrenders to a daffodil machete” into a song of seduction is operating on too many levels to split hairs.
VIDEO: The Story of Thanks for the Dance
One of the most striking lyrics on the album, however, has nothing to do with romance. “Puppets” is one of the songs with origins going back to the 2000s, and lyrically, it’s one of the most minimalist lyrics Cohen has ever written. Encompassing the Holocaust, international politics, and more with its economical lines, it’s matched in its concision only by the album’s closing song, “Listen to the Hummingbird.”
As Jeroen Krabbe’s character in the film Crossing Delancey says of Confucius, “It’s poetry stripped to the skin, not to the bone,” and the Zen-like spiritual air of “Hummingbird” suggests that Cohen learned a thing or two in the years he spent as a Buddhist Monk on Mount Baldy.
Detours into minimalism notwithstanding, the overall lyrical direction of Thanks for the Dance shouldn’t surprise anyone conversant with Cohen’s work over the last couple of decades. The biggest departure comes from Adam’s end of things. The synth-based sounds that have tended to dominate Cohen’s recorded output ever since the ’80s are nowhere to be heard here. Instead, the production is an entirely organic one, where a crew including Daniel Lanois, Beck, Jennifer Warnes, Damien Rice, Feist, and members of The National and Arcade Fire adds piano, brass, woodwinds, strings, and other acoustic colors that have hardly been heard on Cohen’s records since 1979’s Recent Songs.
Whether or not Thanks for the Dance lives up to anyone’s expectations of what the last chapter of the Leonard Cohen story should sound like, and whether or not it turned out the way he would have done it if he’d hung around long enough, it shows us a master who went out with his mastery intact.
AUDIO: Leonard Cohen Thanks for the Dance (full album)