Album Review: Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker

In tribute to the irreplaceable Leonard Cohen, who died last week aged 82, Laura and I reviewed his final album, You Want it Darker. The below was originally published by Flux Magazine, and is available here.

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Can there be any nobler way of putting one’s affairs in order than by composing an album that confronts the ghosts of one’s past and appeals to God himself?

Like David Bowie a few short months ago with the instantly seminal Blackstar, it seems Leonard Cohen transcended this mortal coil having left an emphatic swan song echoing in his wake.

A reflection of the lifelong quest for spiritual meaning which permeated much of Cohen’s work, and which saw the Canadian Jew ordained a Zen Buddhist Monk in 1996, You Want It Darker is a tapestry of religious imagery, of demons and angels, old testament and new.

Cohen’s own mortality is confronted most urgently on the title and opening track, in which a driving moody bassline is punctuated with the chant of “Hineni” (meaning “Here I Am. Send Me!” in Hebrew) followed by “I am ready, my Lord”. It’s the steeling of a man prepared to meet his maker. “If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame;” so goes a stand-out line, as, confronted with infinity, its author realises his fragility. Weighty of theme though the track may be, it underlines Cohen’s continuing relevance as a writer of instantly memorable pop songs.

Another of You Want it Darker’s stark admissions, “I struggled with some demons / they were middleclass and tame” is mirrored in the track Leaving the Table with the line “You’ve got these excuses / they’re tired and lame”. Accompanied by a traditional Cohen arrangement of folksy, melancholic guitar, it features a voice full of resignation and ends with the semblance of a dying breath.

Further biblical pictures are to be found in Treaty. Over choppy, marching strings, Cohen conjures “water into wine” and “snake baffled by sin”, recalling his oft-covered masterpiece Hallelujah. In Travelling Light, concise and deliberate stanzas overlay trilling flamenco guitar. “I used to play / one mean guitar”, he wistfully reminds us.

A moment’s respite from such existential angst, On the Level offers sonic redemption through the soothing velvety harmonies of a gospel choir. A riff that again nods to Hallelujah, simplistic and hopeful, runs beneath.

Cohen’s sublime vocals seem more gravel-toned than ever (once a tenor, his ever-deepening voice is here unrecognisable from his early albums). This unique tool is used in Steer Your Way to great effect, matching the bassline for depth in a march over lilting guitar.

Produced from his home and finished in the twilight of his dwindling days, this is a parting gift from a legend who continued making music right up until the curtain fell. The subjects aren’t new; Cohen has always sung heart breaking laments interwoven with transcending poetry, but You Want it Darker is the culmination. It’s the last projection from a mind long used to probing the spiritual world for answers to the big questions, by way of synagogue and of mountain monastery, always heading towards this final moment.

5 stars

The High Road

Amy’s head swam.  The scene visible to her through the windscreen, ever-evolving as she drove steadily through the busy shopping precinct of Dorset Road, appeared to play out in super slow motion. On the pavements framing her view at either side, pedestrians moved lethargically to-and-fro with leaden steps, as if submerged to the knee in glue. Beside them, cyclists rolled by at such lugubrious pace as to cause her to wonder how they were managing to stay upright. A passing flock of migratory birds dappled the pale blue winter sky above, passing across it with an eerie sluggishness. With the perception of having more time in which to absorb their messages, the text on billboards and road signs stood out in vivid relief against the otherwise sedate visual backdrop. Quite against her will, Amy began to obsessively rearrange the words and letters into component anagrams as she encountered them.

Cost Saver: Overcasts, Car stoves. Extended Warranty: Try annexed dew rat; An exerted dawn try. Tourist Information Centre: True confrontations mire It; Riot fermentations cut iron.

The most torturous aspect of this strangely altered sense of time was the age that seemed to stretch between the first appearance of each article of oncoming traffic on the distant horizon and its passing out of her vision through the window to her right. During each such yawning expanse of time, Amy found herself obsessing about them too. As each new vehicle came into her view, she was unable to prevent herself from noting the make and model, taking mental record of the physical appearance of each occupant within, and then imagining with brutal, visceral detail meeting them in a succession of abrupt and catastrophic head-on collisions.

Time and time again in Amy’s mind’s eye, cars, trucks, and buses veered from their sedate path along the opposite carriageway and careered toward her. Drawn in with magnetic attraction, each vehicle slammed into the front of the little hatchback that she was piloting in angry clouds of broken glass, twisted steel, and fire. Despite the violence, serene silence reigned, because the radio was broken and because the recurring carnival of metal-on-metal carnage existed only in the realm of woozy daydream, inspired by nothing more tangible than nervous anxiety and the memory of a thousand action movie car chases and a hundred road safety campaign ads.

Stirred from the succession of dark fantasies, Amy suddenly became acutely aware of the way her sweaty palms were slipping on the steering wheel; of how her imperfect, organic clamminess was failing against the cool and stolid precision-engineered rubber. She tightened her grip until it hurt, her elbows locked at right angles and her hands fixed steadfastly in the textbook-approved positions of ten and two o’clock. Through subtle yet deliberate shifting of her shoulders, she made what adjustments were necessary to maintain her trajectory along the straight road with the grim determination of a sailor at the helm of a storm-swept galleon.

‘Only a fool breaks the two second rule,’ Amy said in a low whisper as she eased off the accelerator in response to the slowing traffic ahead of her, the tension in her voice would have been obvious were its volume not so slight. Forming the words seemed an alien process. Her mouth was dry and her tongue felt enormous. She detected movement to her left and with it, the stark sudden realisation of her predicament drew an involuntary snigger. She bit her apparently massive tongue to suppress the full-bodied laugh that threatened to grow from this rapidly dawned and hysterical new sense of her predicament. There was no doubt about it now. Amy was spectacularly, hopelessly, completely-and-utterly stoned.

‘At the traffic lights, make a left-hand turn please,’ said the examiner.

With the end in sight, Nathan had inspected the fruits of his considerable effort, stubbed out his joint, and, exhaling, beamed with pride and anticipation. Spread out across every available horizontal plane in the kitchen were open packets, wrappers, and boxes representing the veritable smorgasbord of sugary confections which had been blended in imprecise, fist-sized, proportions into a large Pyrex mixing bowl that he then set about licking clean.

Nathan had surmised that the secret of a good pot brownie was to ensure that the principle active ingredient was sufficiently masked as for the flavour to give no hint toward the psychotropic delights in store for the consumer.

Some twenty years of experience as a consumer (both of cannabis and of internet documentaries of varying degrees of scientific veracity) had instilled a sense within Nathan that eating his beloved weed was an entirely different kettle of fish to smoking it. If he was remembering the biology correctly, this was due the different metabolic processes that played out in the liver as compared to the lungs. That’s why he had been extra careful with the dose.

Careful that is, until he forgot adding that dose to the mixture at all, and so measured, and added, a second of precisely the same size.

Nathan was in the kitchen once again when Amy came home the following afternoon. It was around four, which meant he was newly awake and going through his morning ritual: sitting in his underpants on his stool at the counter, reading last night’s Evening Standard, and eating a giant portion of cereal from the same mixing bowl that he had used in the previous evening’s bake.

From atop the fridge the radio blared, the volume so loud as to distort the voices of both the talk show DJ and the angry cockney gentleman with whom he was arguing for reasons that were not clear. Amy turned it off and, throwing her handbag and keys down beside it, confronted her boyfriend.

‘Nathan, why am I stoned?’

‘Pardon?’ he replied, buying himself time to process the information overload presented by this sudden question which he had not fully understood. He recognised all the words it contained – some of them were very dear to him in fact – yet the angry tone and the context of Amy using it to announce her presence to him were too much for his sleepy brain to decode right away.

‘You heard me. Why am I stoned?’

The time-buying tactic had worked its magic. Not only did Nathan now understand the question, he was also confident that he knew answer to it. Those brownies, the crowning achievement of his week, had been at the forefront of his mind since they came out of the oven.

‘You ate the brownies!’ said Nathan. The excitement in his voice the result both of solving the riddle at the first time of asking, and of learning that the undoubted pleasures of his culinary masterpiece had reached an audience beyond his own plate.

‘Yes, I ate the brownies. Why wouldn’t I? There’s a sign saying “Eat me.” stuck to the box!’

Amy, her face reddening in, gestured toward the counter where the Tupperware containing the offending snacks still sat. The note to which she referred was made in handwriting they both knew to be Nathan’s, and was exactly as clear and succinct as she was suggesting. The two short words, rendered in block capital letters, were even accompanied by competent, if somewhat childlike, drawing of a face, smiling invitingly.

‘My question is, how was I meant to guess that eating the brownies was going to send me into outer space?’

Nathan slowly and sheepishly stood up, wiping milk from around his mouth. The stool emitted a low groan as it slid back against the tiled floor, as if trying to disassociate itself from him.

‘It’s… “Eat me.” it’s a reference to Alice in Wonderland,’ he offered meekly. ‘You know – the part where she eats the cake and grows. Or does she shrink? I don’t remember exactly, but the point was supposed to be that-‘

Alice in Wonderland?’ Amy interjected. ‘Of course! Please excuse me for not picking up on your literary reference Stephen Fry!’ She adjusted her arm – until that moment still pointing at the box of brownies. Nathan followed her gesture with his gaze, all the way to wall calendar hanging by the door. The one handwritten mark it bore was circled and underlined in red. She didn’t have to speak.

‘Your driving test,’ he said solemnly, the full repercussions of his carelessness becoming clear to him.

‘That’s right,’ she said, curtly. She grew redder still and her forehead furrowed. It appeared to Nathan that she was holding back an intense inner rage. All the same, he had to know for sure.

‘So… how did you do?’ he asked.

With that, the levy broke, and from Amy burst forth the fit of untameable, uproarious, primal laughter that she had somehow managed to supress ever since that left-hand turn on Dorset Road.

Film Review: An Insignificant Man

The below review was published by The Upcoming, and is available there at http://www.theupcoming.co.uk/2016/10/16/london-film-festival-2016-an-insignificant-man-review/ 

an-insignificant-man

With Britain electing to leave the EU by a narrow majority and America soon to be presented with the option of voting for Donald Trump to be their president, there’s a sense that the western world has entered a new era of starkly polarising politics. An Insignificant Man, a powerful new documentary from writing/directing duo Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla, suggests that the political landscape of India has become a battleground divided along lines of equally fundamental discord.

The film charts the rise of anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal, founder of the newly-formed Aam Aadmi party (English translation: Common Man’s party), and rank-outsider challenger in the 2013 assembly elections for the Indian capital of Delhi. Though he’s fiercely opposed by opponents invested in a status quo so amoral as to openly bribe impoverished voters with cash and booze, the charismatic but humble Kejriwal soon becomes an unlikely champion to a disenfranchised people.

While the many parallels between Kejriwal’s ascent and that of socialist contemporaries such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn will provide a touchstone for western audiences, An Insignificant Man also acts as a primer on the unique social climate in the world’s second most populous nation. Of particular influence is the ancient “caste system”; given legal credence during colonisation by the British, it remains the basis for widespread prejudice and subjugation of the poor majority, 60 years on from independence. Incumbent in the role to which Kejriwal aspires, the Congress party’s Sheila Dikshit embodies the sneeringly elitist establishment with a near-pantomime degree of malevolence: in one pre-election interview, she asks “what is his status?” – freely dismissing her challenger.

A markedly candid style ensures the tone of the movie remains vivid and vital, never descending into the realms of the fusty social history lesson. With no voice-over or cutaway explanatory graphics, the only contextual information is presented via snippets of genuine news bulletins that intersect the footage in direct response to the issues raised on Kejriwal’s campaign trail. This real-time approach ensures the tempo of conflict, intrigue, and drama continues to build right up to the ever-approaching climax of the Delhi electorate’s date with destiny.

Serving both as a window into a compelling relevant mass political awakening and as an example of white-knuckle narrative structure, An Insignificant Man is a masterful example of the art of documentary.  

Stuart Boyland