Behind the Song: “You Want It Darker” by Leonard Cohen
Eighty-two years from two days ago, Leonard Cohen, a Canadian singer-songwriter and one of the greatest living songwriters today, was born. Perhaps not by coincidence, September 21st also marks the release date of Cohen’s latest single, “You Want It Darker,” from his upcoming album of the same name expected to release on October 21, 2016. The songwriter behind “Hallelujah” is no stranger to heavy topics, exploring themes such as religion, politics, and sexuality, to name a few, throughout his illustrious career. With the release of “You Want It Darker,” however, Cohen takes the listener even deeper, as the name of the single suggests.
“You Want It Darker” is solemn and chilling from the moment the song starts, the sound of a choir and organ contrast against a grooving electric bass line, carrying the same gravitas as David Bowie’s posthumous release, Blackstar. Cohen delivers haunting lyrics in his raspy baritone, talking yet almost singing, singing yet almost talking, in his trademark performance style. The song abounds with Judeo-Christian religious imagery and references, and while the song is certainly centered around issues of faith, it also explores Cohen’s acceptance of his own mortality upon turning 82.
Cohen’s first lines immediately indicate that he is talking to God (the “dealer”), though it’s unclear whether or not Cohen is singing a song of accusation or surrender. The song’s two refrains alternate between “You want it darker / We kill the flame” and simply, “You want it darker.” In the chorus, Cohen invokes a line commonly found in the Torah, “Hineni, hineni,” which translates to “Here I am,” in English, a phrase famously declared by Abraham and Isaiah in the Jewish Torah and the Christian Old Testament.
According to the Torah, just before Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, Isaac, an angel called out to Abraham to stop him, to which Abraham replied, “Heneni!” The Jewish prophet Isaiah also responds, “Heneni,” in the Book of Yeshayahu Chapter 6 (Isaiah 6:8 in the Old Testament) after he hears the voice of God ask, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Unlike Abraham and Isaiah, Leonard Cohen doesn’t seem to be answering a call, but rather calling out to God first, adding, “I’m ready, Lord.” Though it’s unclear exactly what Cohen is ready for, the verses of the song shed some light on what he might mean.
“You Want It Darker,” has four verses, the first two of which are repeated in reverse order at the end of the fourth verse. Throughout the song, Cohen alludes to his mortality and inevitable death (“If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game”), the Crucifixion of Christ (“Vilified, crucified in the human frame”), and the Holocaust (“They’re lining up the prisoners / And the guards are taking aim / I struggled with some demons / They were middle class and tame”). These verses, though fairly short, are complex, simultaneously struggling with the morality of a loving God who seems to permit suffering, comparing Cohen himself to Christ in the sense that he, too, must die, and seeming to come to an acceptance of a finite understanding about suffering and death. These are questions that have plagued religious and non-religious people alike for millennia, and it would seem Leonard Cohen is no different or superior to the millions of humans who have lived and died before him in this regard.
Though “You Want It Darker” is a somber tune, it effectively tackles an enormous moral and philosophic dilemma without being presumptuous, a feat that only a master such as Leonard Cohen could manage. The song may not offer any concrete solutions to difficult questions of faith, but it is in this solemn declaration of “Hineni, hineni / I’m ready, Lord,” that Cohen perhaps displays the real strength of his faith, despite how broken and incomplete it may be. While Cohen doesn’t explicitly state what he’s ready for, one can only speculate until more answers might be provided upon the release of the full album in October.