Leonard Cohen turned 82 on Wednesday, and he released a new song.
“You Want It Darker” is a continuation of his strongest, deepest work — songs that blur the lines between life and death, the holy and the profane, love and war, religion and sex. He has a new album coming out Oct. 21. He is as vital as ever. How many songs, how many albums, allow us to witness an artist, nearing death, gazing so plainly at what is just ahead?
The song opens with the “ooh ooh” of a choir, then a beat and a bass line join in. “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game./ If you are the healer that means I’m broken and lame./ If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame./ You want it darker. We kill the flame,” he sings, in that Cohen basso profundo.
He addresses God, death, in later choruses maybe lovers, the dark forces of human nature that prevail, fade, and rise again. It’s all the same, different faces of the whole. And then:
“Hineni hineni. I’m ready, my Lord,” he sings.
That “hineni hineni” is uttered in a voice so deep — even for Cohen — it is as if he is standing over his already dug grave, looking in, while singing the words. The phrase is the heart of the song.
In the Bible, when Abraham is called by God, he responds “Hineni.” It means “Here I am,” but it means something more, too — I am ready, I am at your call. (The word has many, many interpretations, because Judaism.) God then directs Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his son — a subject Cohen has written about before, in “Story of Isaac,” from 1969’s “Songs From a Room.” That song is written from the boy’s point of view. We grow older.
Jacob and Moses, among others, also respond with the phrase when God comes calling. It is said at pivotal moments, when the person uttering it is wholly awake and aware. It is an active “I’m here,” not a passive one: Cohen is not just ready. He is waiting, he is calling. “Hineni” is also a prayer recited during the Jewish High Holy Days, soon upon us. The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time for repentance and introspection; it is during this period, according to Judaism, that it is determined whether our names are inscribed in the book of life for the coming year.
Later lyrics in “You Want It Darker” might remind a listener of “Anthem,” the 1992 song best known for the repeated phrase “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”
“Anthem” can be heard as a forgiving song, and a hopeful song, but it is also an angry song. In June, when Representatives Katherine Clark and John Lewis led a sit-in demanding Republican leadership allow votes on gun legislation, it was a verse from “Anthem” that kept running through my head.
At times, “You Want It Darker” evokes that spirit. Cohen is coming to an end. He is angry still. He is ready.
In July, Marianne Ihlen died. She was once Cohen’s lover, and the muse behind the songs “So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on the Wire.” He wrote her a letter on her deathbed, which her friend Jan Christian Mollestad, a documentary filmmaker, read to her. In a CBC interview, Mollestad summarized its content:
“Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road. . .”
It is rare that we receive art with this kind of awareness of and proximity to death — David Bowie’s “Blackstar” is another recent example. I suspect that Cohen — who in his life has been many things, including a Zen monk — has never felt particularly far away from it.Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.