I was in the minority who believed that Leonard Cohen’s You Want it Darker was a stronger end-of-life album than David Bowie’s Blackstar in 2016, and I stand by that opinion now. Deep, dark, and strange, it sounded like it was recorded in a crypt, with Cohen’s rumbling vocals carefully articulating his reckonings with life and death, and sweet strings offsetting his natural darkness with moving precision. Naturally, it was made all the more scary, troubling, and essential to fans when Cohen passed away 19 days after its release. But it was always an excellent album, an unflinching look into the oncoming void, in contrast to Bowie’s attempt which was sometimes evasive.
Thanks for the Dance is the first posthumous release from Leonard Cohen, and, if we’re to believe Adam Cohen, also the last. Adam worked closely with his father as a producer on You Want it Darker and on the demos for this album. He gathers together several leftover songs, and one spoken poem, on Thanks for the Dance, and is given a boost by a host of session musicians and a few celebrity fans who dropped in to help, most notably Beck, Daniel Lanois, Jennifer Warnes, and Damien Rice. Yet the music still sounds unhesitatingly spare, never overcrowding Leonard’s frail vocals, which come withered by age, cigarettes, and the leukaemia that was eating away at his body.
Fans have grownn accustomed to Cohen’s vocals being propped up by female vocalists, both live and on record. Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters in particular are essential to the success of his music throughout the years. But here background vocalists come in rarely: the most noticeable moment is on the second half of the title track. The result across the album is a little unnerving, but also limiting, because Cohen has always struggled to carry a tune on his own.
Still, his voice may be withered and cracked, but as he famously once sang: “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in”. And light pours in through the cracks of his voice on many an occasion throughout this album, conveying all of the depth and wit that made the man such a great artist. He writes brilliantly about old age, from the pills that he thanks God for to the hills outside his window that he acknowledges he’ll never be able to climb again. “The Goal” sees him unable to leave his house and instead turning to accounts of the soul. And “Puppets” confronts real and emotional fascism in an oblique, pithy manner that would do Elvis Costello proud.
And then there’s a real whopper: “The Night of Santiago” is simply one of his best songs, a horny reminiscence of a sexual encounter (“her nipples rose like bread”) that is given unexpected depth by Cohen’s wry performance and a throwaway couplet that transforms it into a song about the curiosity of memory: “Though I’ve forgotten half my life/I still remember this”. It reminds me of the scene in Citizen Kane where Joseph Cotton remembers the girl in the white dress, retelling the story as if the fog of old age and bad memory had suddenly lifted, leaving him (and us) enchanted by the sudden clarity; who knows if the story in “The Night of Santiago” is true or not, but Cohen evokes that exact same feeling perfectly.
And all throughout the music is tastefully done. A bit too tastefully for my liking, I must admit, with none of the cheeky musical jokes that have spotted Cohen’s career from the toy synthesizer on “Tower of Song” to the jaunty country chorus of “Did I Ever Love You”. Cohen’s music has always been much more playful than his depressive reputation might suggest, but you wouldn’t really know that from listening to Thanks for the Dance. Maybe it’s the limitations imposed by the respectful aura expected of a posthumous album, maybe it’s the lack of involvement of the man himself. But the music is quiet and unextraordinary, all heavy piano and acoustic guitar (reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s posthumous American Recordings albums), and as mentioned before the backing vocals have largely been kept locked in the crypt. The most interesting thing about the music is a newfound Spanish lilt: Javier Mas on the laúd and some vocals from Sílvia Pérez Cruz help to lean the production in that direction. But, yes, even these touches are tastefully done. There is certainly a limit to risk and adventure in Thanks for the Dance, embodied by its abbreviated length at 29 minutes. It all feels a little undercooked.
Still, the album works in one crucial way: it really makes you miss Leonard Cohen. Once upon a time in his career he released a song called “Dance Me to the End of Love”. And, as Laurie Anderson once beautifully remarked, “the purpose of death is the release of love”. So, now that Cohen has passed through life and to the end and release of love, all that’s left his thanks for that mysterious dance.
Cohen was lucky to be in a position of giving thanks at the end of his life, and he knew it. But we were equally lucky to receive it.