Author: Shelby Leone
No, your eyes do not deceive you, this is indeed a Leonard Cohen Album review in God’s year of 2019. Cohen died on November 7, 2016, at the age of 82, but on November 22, 2019, Colombia Records and Legacy Recordings released Thanks For The Dance produced by his son, singer-songwriter Adam Cohen.
Thank For The Dance was started by a cancer-ridden Cohen along with his son, who told NPR
Thanks For the Dance might have been saved from the cutting room floor, but the work is far from unfinished. Adam Cohen packs this album with collaborators such as Beck, Feist, and The National’s Bryce Dessner, as well as rich instrumentation and backing vocals. So, unlike hotly debated posthumous releases such as Kurt Cobain’s “Montage of Heck”, a collection of demos that became highly scorned amongst Cobain disciples and was seen as an invasion of the late singer’s privacy, this release seems more intentional and finished.
So what do the songs of a man facing death sound like? Well, morbid, for one thing. This theme is not new for Cohen, who is known for wry, self-deprecating, and dark humor. But Cohen’s morbidity is paired here with other themes, like sex and nostalgia. He opens with his song “Happens To The Heart,” the musical equivalent of his poem of the same name. The album’s inaugural line is “I was always working steady but I never called it art/ I got my s**t together meeting Christ and reading Marx”. Already we have a feeling of looking back through the grounded lens of age. “Happens To The Heart” is a warning as much as a memory. It recalls squandered youth and broken hearts, and a life of intensity. His simple guitar soon blooms into strings and horns and piano as he assures, “I know about the ending” and “I fight for something final, not the right to disagree” — these lines ring out louder in retrospect.
The album consists of stories that feel like memories. As usual, Cohen gives listeners peaks into tender moments, but constantly zooms in and out, never allowing us to linger on the specifics for too long before he takes control of the narrative once more. On the sexually explicit “The Night of Santiago”, based on Garcia Llorca’s poem “La Casada Infiel” (1928), Cohen gives his own spin to the tale of a married woman’s sexual foray, placing himself in the shoes of her lover. This saucy song is made sexier by the thumping instrumentation and audible Spanish guitarist influences. While this song has some of the albums more questionable lyrics such as “behind the fine embroidery her nipples rose like bread” it also contains gentle moments like the chorus
“The night of Santiago/And I was passing through/I took her to the river/ As any man would do”. Here he is intimate and delicate, but then he pulls back as he shrugs “You were born to judge the world/Forgive me but I wasn’t”.
Cohen reestablishes himself as the master of the sexy/dark couplet and as one of the world’s greatest lyricists ever known. This entire review could be all of the brilliant lines packed onto this 29-minute release. But by far my favorite of these was on “Moving On”, as he states “I loved your face I loved your hair/ your t-shirts, and your evening wear. As for the world, the job, the war, I ditched them all to love you more”
This song is just one of the examples of this record’s gorgeous, floaty, and delicate instrumentation to embroider Cohen’s darker themes. It’ Torn and “The Goal” both serve as Night-Before-Christmas-like short stories if the Night Before Christmas was told by a more Moody and Brooding narrator… possibly holding a whiskey. “Puppets” is another Cohen poem, this time facing the cruelty of the holocaust, and ultimately of the human condition. It is a sobering song amongst its boozy brethren, addressing the deathly reality of war and politics.
The two crown jewels of this release, however, are the title track, “Thanks For the Dance” and the final track, “Listen to the Hummingbird”. Thanks For is a classic Cohen guitar piece with tender lyrics to a lover. It is literally a delicate waltz, and yet there is a sense that the dance is ending. He recalls a myriad of experiences with a lover, including the conception of a child that was not born, the wonder of lover, and its somber end. He masterfully captures a lifetime within a single song, as he has done before, but something about this one seems like he is reaching for closure. The song is very clearly a love song, but within this collection, the message seems to be directed towards the listeners as much as the subject. Cohen takes a cheeky bow before the album even ends.
But like all things, this album does end, and it ends with the simple “Listen to the Hummingbird”. Cohen recites the lines with earnestness, while a team of vocalists dance around his stanzas. It’s tenderhearted yet grim, like all advice you receive from a grandparent. The fitting final line of Leonard Cohen in recorded music is
“Listen to the hummingbird, don’t listen to me”. It’s wise, macabre, self-deprecating, yet warm. It’s a perfect end.
How does one review the songs of a man whose reputation is as one of the greatest songwriters to have ever lived? Leonard Cohen gives no surprises in this release, but when you are Leonard Cohen, that is not a bad thing. This release is not his best album, not by far, but it gives us something a typical album cannot. Thanks For The Dance gives the closure one might feel when they find a letter written by a grandparent years after they pass. It may not be addressed to you or tell you something grand and new that you never knew, but the experience of reading it gives you that moment of connection you thought you had lost with time.
I’m glad to have remembered it again.
Shelby Leone | KXSU Music Reporter