TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Leonard Cohen has just released an album of new songs called "You Want It Darker." Cohen, who is now 82, writes frequently about the fragility of life. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAVELING LIGHT")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Vocalizing).
LEONARD COHEN: (Singing) I'm traveling light. It's au revoir. My once so bright. My fallen star. I'm running late. They'll close the bar. I used to play one mean guitar. I guess I'm just...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: In a certain sense, Leonard Cohen's talents qualify him supremely to be a chronicler of oncoming death. His voice sounds as though it is emerging from a tomb, most often now a ghostly whisper, offering serious contemplation, wry observations and sly taunts to friends, fans and whoever may be waiting for him on the other side. The tendency of the melodies to fall into a stately cadence has never seemed more appropriate to the lyrics he's now writing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVING THE TABLE")
COHEN: (Singing) I'm leaving the table. I'm out of the game. I don't know the people in your picture frame. If I ever loved you, oh, no, no, it's a crying shame if I ever loved you, if I knew your name.
TUCKER: In a recent profile in The New Yorker, David Remnick quotes Leonard Cohen as saying of his current life "the big change is the proximity to death." I've got some work to do, Cohen tells Remnick, take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it's not too uncomfortable. The sentiments would be unbearably sad were they not uttered in the context of such vital creativity.
The New Yorker profile is, among other things, a promotional item for this new album, which features some of Cohen's simplest yet most effective lyrics. His mordant sense of humor mixes with religious righteousness on the title song in which Cohen's vocal slithers through the music like a serpent.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU WANT IT DARKER")
COHEN: (Singing) If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game. If you are the healer, it means I'm broken and lame. If thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame. You want it darker. We kill the flame. Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name. Vilified, crucified in the human frame. A million candles burning for the help that never came. You want it darker. Hineni, hineni, I'm ready, my Lord.
TUCKER: I recently re-listened to some of Cohen's earlier work, particularly my favorite album of his, 1988's "I'm Your Man," and I was struck by how much his voice has changed slowly, steadily, without my realizing the extent of the change. Yes, the process of aging has further constricted his always limited range and added a sandpapery wear on his vocal cords. Nevertheless, he's still singing about, thinking about, one of his eternal topics - the difficulties of romance - on a song such as "Treaty."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TREATY")
COHEN: (Singing) I've seen you change the water into wine. I've seen you change it back to water too. I sit at your table every night. I try but I just don't get high with you. I wish there was a treaty we could sign. And I do not care who takes the bloody hill. I'm angry and I'm tired all the time. I wish there was a treaty - I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.
TUCKER: Aging has also added something to Cohen's performances here, a quietness that comes across as intimacy as the musical complement to the confidences he's offering in his words.
I love one of these new songs called "On The Level" for a couple of reasons. The first is the aching couplet you smiled at me like I was young, it took my breath away. The second is the arrangement of the song, the way a rhythm and blues chorus of female voices joins Cohen's, giving the song an added touch of reality, of being on the level with the listener.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE LEVEL")
COHEN: (Singing) I knew that it was wrong. I didn't have a doubt. I was dying to get back home, and you were starting out. I said I'd best be moving on. You said we have all day. You smiled at me like I was young. It took my breath away. Your crazy fragrance all around. Your secrets all in view. My lost, my lost was saying found, my don't was saying do.
LEONARD COHEN AND UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Let's keep it on the level when I walked away from you. I turned my back on the devil, turned my back on the angel too.
TUCKER: This album, "You Want It Darker," is filled with an array of metaphors for death. Cohen sings of leaving the table or being out of the game, a phrase that appears in two songs. He picks up the notion of death as the final journey when he sings, I'm traveling light. It's au revoir. And on the title song, he speaks directly to God, using the Hebrew word for here I am - hineni, hineni. I'm ready, my Lord.
Among recent albums about facing down final moments, this album finds its only equal with the last recordings of Johnny Cash, who made tremendous music with a voice that was almost escaping his body. What Leonard Cohen is doing here is less a summing up than a living will, complete with gifts for how to negotiate a life for maximum passion.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Leonard Cohen's new album "You Want It Darker." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Donald Glover, who created the FX series "Atlanta" in which he stars as a Princeton dropout who's broke and wants to manage the career of his cousin, who's a rapper. Glover wrote for "30 Rock," played Troy Barnes on the series "Community," raps under the name Childish Gambino - he was nominated for two Grammys - and he also does standup. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our engineer today is Adam Stanishevski (ph). Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.