REVIEW: Leonard Cohen ruminates eternally on ‘Thanks For The Dance’

lenard cohen, thanks for the dance

Three years after his death, Leonard Cohen remains a touchstone in popular music. Referenced with knowing glances among musicians, his singular style inhabits a gray world rife with disappointment, longing and resignation. A tenured and substantial fixture in folk music and poetry, Cohen speaks from beyond the grave with Thanks For The Dance, his 15th studio album.

Thanks For The Dance
Leonard Cohen
Legacy Recordings, Nov. 22

Thanks For The Dance is his first posthumous collection of unreleased material. It marks a ginger initial step into the project of archiving his oeuvre—the final frontier of his body of original work. The songs arise from musical and lyrical loose ends that remained after Cohen’s passing. At his behest, the disparate ideas were fleshed out and completed by his son, Adam Cohen. As such, these songs simultaneously exist within and outside of Leonard Cohen’s catalog, and he is both present and absent on the vibrant, shadowy recordings.

The musical arrangements typify Leonard Cohen’s spare, capacious sound. As with his previous collaboration with his son, 2016’s You Want It Darker, the orchestrated instruments trade passages conversationally against a dark atmosphere. The musical scenery shifts while his haggardly voice remains front and center, opening ethereal spaces around subtle instrumental and vocal shadings.

Delicate choral vocals breath life into simple mandolin theme of “Moving On” and spirited guitar gallop of “Night Of Santiago.” Similarly, strings and acoustic guitar embellish a wintry piano theme on the fleeting “The Goal.” Such understated touches are at times barely noticeable as they underpin Leonard Cohen’s vocals with contemplative significance. The overall effect of the record is very much in keeping with the low-key spirit that established Leonard Cohen as a major artist.

Parting thoughts from Cohen’s deteriorating body indicate that his mind remained astute to the very end. On “The Hills,” the album’s lushest offering, he sounds road-weary but resolute, like a man who has grudgingly accepted his fate. He musters the strength to dramatize his condition with the opening lines: “I can’t make the hills/ The system is shot/ I’m living on pills/ For which I thank God.” The arrangement slowly builds with cinematic elegance, incorporating horns, drums and prominent angelic backing vocals. The bridge approaches rapture before ebbing to a fervent conclusion, leavening the grim aspects of the song.

The album’s briefness echoes with a somber finality. These songs are concise and saturated with meaning—drifting, liturgical gems of Leonard Cohen’s meditative ingenuity. Cohen’s voice is gruffer and deeper than ever here. He sounds grizzled, yet serene in his brooding lyrical explorations. Rarely does he impart traditional melody, relying on a fatigued, sincere spoken word delivery. Unsurprisingly, his pondering on mortality carry the project. His sighing baritone narrates in simple meter, as clever rhymes and cheeky metaphors wink from the corners of stanzas.

Lead track “Happens To The Heart” introduces the hushed storytelling style that permeates the album. Ostensibly an expository reflection on his life’s journey, the verses come loaded with metaphorical significance. “I was always working steady/ But I never called it art,” he groans, conjuring autobiographical gravity. When he completes the couplet, he layers the narrative with new opacity. “I got my shit together/ Meeting Christ and reading Marx,” he continues, casting doubt on the identity and objectivity of the speaker. He continues in this familiar style, wrapping pearls of dubious substance in verse suggestive of multiple coterminous tales.

The song list’s brevity gives it the air of an epilogue instead of a fleshed-out experience. “It’s Torn” reflects its title, sounding like an idea ripe for expansion, but cut off before it could be completed. “The Goal,” a penetrating short poem, is over almost as soon as it’s begun. Some of the songs feature exploratory musical themes that almost certainly would have continued for many verses on earlier albums.

The beautiful, ephemeral vignette “Listen To The Hummingbird” evokes life in the larger sense and reveals the heart of Thanks For The Dance. “Listen to the hummingbird/ Don’t listen to me/ Listen to the butterfly/ Whose days but number three,” he intones, downplaying his role as interpreter in deference to total experience. Rather than attempting an epic statement or unearthing deep discoveries, he and the younger Cohen pull together a collection of scattered final thoughts in a minimalist collaboration from both sides of life. The contrivances of the poet’s mind only obscure conditions for a while, until the butterfly reminds us there is no reason, only existence.

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