Leonard Cohen, the 82-year-old singer-songwriter with the voice that seems deeper and richer each year, didn’t need to do much to promote his new album this week. He just delivered the perfect quote about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for literature: “It’s like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.” That may be true, but “You Want It Darker” makes a case for Cohen as Mount Godwin-Austen — and it is a dark and doomed second-tallest mountain indeed, whispering seductive death wishes as you climb.
Cohen seems to have arranged “You Want It Darker,” his 14th studio album, deliberately to offset the bleak lyrical material with soft, lighthearted string-and-piano arrangements. “Traveling Light” opens with a welcome Cohen formula, a compact female chorus of la-la-las, before going far beyond wistful and well into bleak. “I used to play one mean guitar,” Cohen laments, adding: “I guess I’m somebody who has given up — on the me and you.” On “Treaty,” he declares himself “angry and tired all the time,” but undercuts this sentiment with sweet violins quoting Gershwin’s flying-the-friendly-skies “Rhapsody in Blue” and bluesy piano reminiscent of Ray Charles’ “Drown in My Own Tears.”
But it is Cohen’s Moses-like reading of his own work that centers this album and prevents it from tumbling over the edge into grief and despair. On “Leaving the Table,” which has a “Blue Velvet” feel and opens with spooky rockabilly guitar straight from the ’50s, Cohen follows the line “if I ever loved you” with a deep-throated “oh, NO, NO, NO” that suggests a deep well of regret and atonement. It gives this brief album — just 39 minutes, closing with a string instrumental — a spiritual quality, like sitting through a funeral service with a beautiful, uplifting roster of clergy and family members.