Recordings from his final sessions find completion through his son, Adam, and fellow travelers, including Beck and Feist
Leonard Cohen wrote and recorded until near his final breaths — the work, it was understood, was keeping him alive. Arriving three years after his death, Thanks for the Dance is a surprise, a sort of séance as shiva, a magnificent parting shot that’s also that exceptionally rare thing — a posthumous work as alive, challenging, and essential as anything issued in the artist’s lifetime.
Completed by his son and collaborator, Adam Cohen, it can be considered of a piece with You Want It Darker, issued just before his father’s death in 2016. The new record builds on fragmentary recordings from those sessions, and similarly, longtime friends and collaborators provide coloring. Foremost is Javier Mas, playing Moorish lines on Spanish Laud and guitars (including Cohen’s own) that triangulate the words of this New World Jewish poet with Old World European and Middle-Eastern music in a way that reverberates as wry, and maybe hopeful, geopolitical metaphor.
You hear the effect strikingly on the single and lead track, “Happens to the Heart,” which engages sexual politics rather than geopolitics. A personal, vaguely rueful song about the business of poetic fatalism and “selling holy trinkets,” it’s carried on atmospheric piano by fellow Canadian Daniel Lanois, Cohen unfurling cryptic rhymes like a cantorial MC. “Had a pussy in the kitchen/And a panther in the yard,” he offers, “In the prison of the gifted/I was friendly with the guards.” The song turns into an interrogation in which no one emerges innocent, the singer included. One provocative verse seems to be a reference to Joshu Sasaki, the #MeToo-ed zen master who Cohen studied with and served for many years. “No fable here, no lesson/No singing meadowlark” Cohen concludes, disgust and weary disappointment rippling across his skeletal baritone, “Just a filthy beggar guessing/What happens to the heart.”
Mas contributes similarly to “The Night of Santiago,” which also showcases flamenco guitarist Carlos de Jacoba alongside Beck (Jew’s harp, more guitar), Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, and Lanois. It’s a roving troubadour’s ballad, ancient in form and content, with Cohen as a rambler in a necktie and gun belt. It describes a fairly explicit sexual encounter (“her nipples rose like bread”) with a deceitful married woman, functioning as a sly parable that dares the listener to play morality cop. “You were born to judge the world,” he sings, in his spalted baritone croak, “Forgive me, but I wasn’t.” It’s a ballsy challenge from a guy whose legendary Casanova game might strike some as predatory. Paired with “Happens to the Heart,” it suggests a man reckoning with his past in the light of the present.
The reckoning continues with the title track, given to his lover and backing singer Anjani Thomas to record on her 2006 album Blue Alert. In her version, certain lines of the waltz were sung in first person, in a brightly wistful survivor’s melancholy, suggesting a complicated relationship that’s already weathered the worst. Here, with backing vocals by another of Cohen’s old flames, Jennifer Warnes, and along with Leslie Feist, Cohen reframes the song with his voice and circumstance into something like a farewell, to his audience and this mortal coil. Lines like “The baby you carried/It was almost a daughter or a son” shoulder a vast sense of loss, as the dance-instruction reprise of “one, two, three, one” is counted off as if by a man on his last legs, which Cohen quite literally was (he was reportedly using an orthopedic medical chair during the recording sessions, which were conducted in his living room).
“It’s Torn” recalls the central image of the Cohen touchstone “Anthem” (“There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in”) in a trembling voice over stately piano. “Come gather the pieces all scattered and lost,” he incants, noting “The lie in what’s holy, the light in what’s not.” The lines are delivered at a funereal tempo, fitting for a song that conjures the death of a beloved along with Cohen’s own mortality. It alludes to politics, too — “It’s torn on the right and it’s torn on the left/It’s torn in the center which few can accept” — pointedly colored by the eyes of a dying man. (Of course, Cohen’s vision could be plenty grim back when his health was fine.)
Ultimately, the most haunting songs are the two shortest. “Listen to the Hummingbird” matches Adam Cohen’s piano to a soundbite of his father reciting a poem just weeks before he passed, at a promotional event for You Want It Darker. Addressing sound, mindfulness, nature and God (or “G-d,” as it’s rendered in the lyric sheet), Leonard Cohen instructs the listener to attend to the world, not his words. “The Goal,” similarly, is less a song than a poetic recitation set to music. At just 1:12, it’s a final testament from a dying man who’s learned that no one here gets out alive, and no one with ambition gets everything done. It may break your heart. But, like the album as a whole, and in fact Cohen’s entire oevre, it may also sustain it.
I sit in my chair
I look at the street
The neighbor returns my smile of defeat
I move with the leaves
I shine with the chrome
I’m almost alive
I’m almost at home
No one to follow
And nothing to teach
Except that the goal
Falls short of the reach