I’ve always seen Leonard Cohen as a charming, wounded predator – and perhaps that’s how he felt, too

On Thanks for the Dance, his posthumous record, Cohen’s voice rumbles through lines on sex, death, faith, politics and economics like a steamroller over dry gravel

Helen Brown
Tuesday 19 November 2019 13:40
Brilliant and infuriating: Leonard Cohen in 1974
Brilliant and infuriating: Leonard Cohen in 1974

Towards the end of his final interview with The New Yorker, published less than a month before his death in November 2016, Leonard Cohen closed his eyes and recited a “sweet little song” to journalist David Remnick. “Listen to the hummingbird/ Whose wings you cannot see/ Listen to the hummingbird/ Don’t listen to me,” he rumbled. “Listen to the mind of God/ Which doesn’t need to be/ Listen to the mind of God/ Don’t listen to me.”

Opening his eyes, he told Remnick he doubted he would have time to finish the song before he died. It was a tough concession for a man who famously spent years (sometimes decades) refining his work: his best known song, “Hallelujah”, took him five years, some of which he says was spent “on the floor, on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor saying, ‘I can’t finish this song’”.

Two years on, it turns out Cohen made time to record the nine new songs which appear here. As on 2016’s excellent You Want it Darker (2016), most of the music was written and produced by Cohen’s son, Adam. Long-time collaborator Javier Mas flew from Barcelona to LA to play Cohen’s own guitar. Producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Emmylou Harris) added piano, and a quiet constellation of singing stars (from Damien Rice to Feist) gathered at the microphone.

Although the fear was that Adam would be spreading his father’s legacy too thin, each track has the weight of a completed thought, not a sketch bulked out.

Cohen’s voice – deepened by “50,000 cigarettes and several swimming pools of whiskey” – rumbles through lines on sex, death, faith, politics and economics like a steamroller over dry gravel. The familiar weltschmerz and one-liners are all delivered at the same controlled pace, which Cohen learned from a hypnotism manual aged 13 and promptly employed to “persuade” the family’s maid to strip naked for him.

When I first read that story in Sylvie Simmons’ terrific biography, I’m Your Man, it made sense of the feeling I’ve always had listening to Cohen: the sense of being seduced but suckered by a charming, wounded predator.

Perhaps that’s how Cohen feels about his own interactions with the world. I think about him losing his father at nine, taking decades to achieve recognition, suffering from depression, being embezzled by his business manager, becoming the spiritual pupil of a “holy man” later accused of serial sexual abuses. In turn, Cohen treated the women in his life as maids and muses – there to bring him sandwiches or sit at his feet and wait for him to leave them a song (on which he’d collect the royalties) before moving on to the next lover. It’s all there in Joni Mitchell’s double-edged description of the man as the “boudoir poet”.

The clouds of these betrayals gather and darken throughout songs like “Happens to the Heart”. He growls about how both Christ and Marx “Failed my little fire/ But the dying spark is bright”. He acknowledges the “Mist of summer kisses where I tried to double park”. You wince at “I had a pussy in the kitchen/ And a panther in the yard”, draw breath at “Every soul is like a minnow/ Every mind is like a shark” and ponder “In the prison of the gifted/ I was friendly with the guards/ So I never had to witness/ What happens to the heart.”

Cohen has always flipped witty couplets like pancakes – it’s brilliant and infuriating. On the page, the technique folds ideas in on themselves, it shuts things down. But the warmth of Mas’s fretwork and spacious echo of Lanois ivories allows the flip-flopped lines to stretch out, concertina style. It gets beautiful.

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Cover artwork for Leonard Cohen's posthumous 'Thanks for the Dance'

“The Night of Santiago” finds an opportunistic Cohen recalling a one night stand with a woman who “Said she was a maiden/ That wasn’t what I’d heard/ For the sake of conversation/ I took her at her word.” In the space of the second verse, his lover’s breasts are first sleeping, then opening lilies, then “her nipples rose like bread”. Icky. Cohen – as ever, just “passing through” – “Took her to the river/ As any man would do,” where he takes off his tie and her thighs become “shoals of fish”. It turns out she is married with children. We believe Cohen when he says he wasn’t born to judge. But he’s on shakier ground when he says: “I wasn’t born a gypsy/ To make a woman sad.”

“Moving On” finds the old romancer on more appealing form: “I loved your face/ I loved your hair/ Your T-shirts and your eveningwear…” although the lover he’s addressing – possibly Marianne Ihlen, who died four months before him – is gone.

The title track reads as a braver and more brutal reckoning with that complicated open relationship, including her abortion of their child. “Thanks for the dance and the baby you carried/ It was almost a daughter or son… It was hell, it was swell, it was fun.”

“Puppets” is loaded with the faux-profundity of a GCSE ditty excusing everybody of responsibility for their own actions: “German puppets burn the Jews/ Jewish puppets did not choose… Puppet lovers in their bliss/ Turn away from all of this.”

But “The Hill” is a grimly triumphant final stand against mortality and the only track for which Cohen wrote the music. A foghorn of bone-rattling brass blasts through the synths as Cohen says he’s “Living on pills/ For which I thank God”. He’s in animal pain but death – evoked as a woman – is approaching to bring relief. “My page is too white,” he concedes, “My ink is too thin/ The day wouldn’t write/ What the night pencilled in/ But I know she is coming/ I know she will look/ And that is the longing/ And this is the hook.”

I always get goosebumps when Cohen unpicks his structure: “It goes like this/ The fourth, the fifth/ The minor fall, the major lift/ The baffled king composing Hallelujah.” Bob Dylan – another wordy charmer I never trust – says Cohen’s melodies were underrated. And here he is, scoring his own ending with a dirge that becomes euphoric.

The record then bows out with a quiet recitation of the Hummingbird poem: it sounds like Lanois is playing his muffled piano back on Earth as Cohen drifts off: still talking, still telling us not to listen to him. Tricky. Witty. Self-indulgent. Self-effacing. Fedoras off.

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