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October 19, 2016

TEST SPIN: Leonard Cohen — You Want it Darker

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For the most part, I feel that the recent clown scares across multiple states are harmless but creepy. The motivation for dressing up as a clown and, in most cases, simply loitering, confuses me. What interests me most about the whole trend is not the faux-clown’s compulsion but the “real” clown’s indignant reaction. Both characters merely dress a part. But, the “real” clown feels a right to their act and a justification in accusing their counterpart of cheapening their jolly role. Leonard Cohen’s new album, You Want it Darker, reminds me of this spooky identity issue. Leonard Cohen plays the fake clown. He’s strictly human, he’s benign and mild. Yet, his voice, his chords and his lyrics combine to eerily alarm listeners. Despite his scary movie-like sounds’ fictitious quality, Cohen’s album means something.

His album asks the question: who is the “real” clown?  Who’s acting a part and who’s acting out their own emotions?  In current news stories, it seems that neither party genuinely feels clown-like. The professional clown’s resentment roots in financial concerns. The imitative clown’s actions stem from, I believe, boredom and irrationality. Leonard Cohen, as a performer, truly lives what he sings. You Want it Darker convinces me that Cohen feels his haunting music for no other reason but that it matches his emotions. Every spooky note serves a purpose. The album isn’t just a track-list for October; it’s more than Halloween music.

Cohen’s singing can barely be called that. He hones into his voice’s deep raspy register and symphonically speaks. The resulting sound booms like an underground sermon. “You Want it Darker,” the record’s first track, draws the listener down to a lightless church. Like a starless night, his first track sends the listener to a slimy, stone cold mass. Cohen’s voice emerges like a priest’s at confession, but the artist already knows your sins. He relays the message upward: “I’m ready, my lord,” and speaks on behalf of his audience as each chord carries away the listeners’ thoughts. Cohen both calls out and responds to an endless emotional chamber. Managing every spectrum of feeling, he plays an all-knowing narrator. His lyrics echo his complexities and only a continuous understanding links each variant concept. No specific tone or emotion monopolizes his music. The eeriness in his sound stems not only from the sort of “Monster Mash” undertone but the impression of familiarity. His commercial-worthy tone elicits an intimacy between speaker and listener — like that between two friends who thought they’d never meet again. Cohen sees through you. And as he sings, “I’m ready, my lord,” I’m unsure if we’re “ready” for death or rebirth. Regardless, the track list continues and I’m still listening.

Contradiction characterizes Cohen’s album. The music spooks while the lyrics sadden. Lively melodies carry sincere words. Cohen, at times, sounds like a Halloween recording; at others, he intonates like Frosty the Snowman, and at another his violin plays a processional melody. Irony invades his music when this strangely familiar voice utters strong and incongruent words. The inconsistency between Frosty-like tone and serious sentiment sends a message to listeners. Cohen’s sincerity lends itself to this paradox. He’s human. His sounds capture genuine feelings, never entirely one emotion or the other. He appears untainted by public pressure to sell albums. Standing firmly in his identity, he poses as someone else and acts unpredictably. The idea reminds me of Sara Bareilles’ 2007 hit, “Love Song.”  Cohen won’t write you a love song “’cause you asked for it /  ‘cause you need one.”  Cohen, like Bareilles, pretends to do so, only to write what really matters. He sings to this deception in “Treaty”: “Only one of us was real and that was me.” He’s like an eighty degree day during Ithaca’s Fall. Surprising.

Despite the spooky undertones in his music, his unmasking isn’t scary, it’s honest. The album progresses from his first haunting track to less threatening melodies. His lyrics mirror this progression. Cohen lures you down into a dark conscious space and then turns the lights on. And, “there’s nobody missing.”  After its first track, You Want it Darker, reflects Cohen’s true identity: “He shed[s] his scales to find the snake within.”

Cohen poses as the fake clown but too many of his tracks blow his cover. Cohen might sympathize with these irrational actors but he isn’t one himself. His emotions and his tone allow him to take on many faces in his music. He haunts, he comforts, he surprises and he reveals his complicatedness. Above all, he persuades. Of course, Cohen, too, may just play a part. Regardless, he convinces me. He moves me with every impassioned lyric and powerful melody. You Want it Darker resonates with familiar sounds and unprecedented combinations.

Julia Curley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at jcurley@cornellsun.com.

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