Posthumous albums are a mixed bag. Often, they sound like what they are: scraped-together odds and ends, with a weird, almost macabre quality of a disembodied pop star singing from beyond the grave.
I’m delighted to report that Leonard Cohen’s “new” album, Thanks for the Dance, is not that.
Assembled by Cohen’s son Adam (himself a fine musician) from recordings unfinished at the time of his father’s final album, You Want It Darker, this new collection contains several brilliant Cohen songs, a handful of decent ones, and more than a few chilling moments as Cohen reflects on his long life and imminent death.
Unlike other posthumously-released singers (Michael Jackson, Prince), Cohen had, after all, already been facing mortality in his poetry and music, and these are songs he asked his son to finish. As a result, Thanks for the Dance is a fitting conclusion to his last few years of work, rather than an appendix to it.
The album opens with its standout track, “Happens to the Heart,” where Cohen confesses, over an atmospheric acoustic guitar and discreet piano:
I was always working steady
But I never called it art
I got my shit together
Meeting Christ and reading Marx
It failed, my little fire,
But it spread the dying spark.
Go tell the young messiah
What happens to the heart.
There’s a lot here, in densely compacted words: the poet’s self-doubt about the relationship of art to commerce; the play between spirituality and politics (“Meeting Christ” as a metaphor for Cohen’s longtime spiritual practice); the alchemy of passion and regret into poetry; and finally, a bitterness—or is it wisdom?—that the long-ago romanticism of “Suzanne” hardens, inevitably, and cools, and dies.
That economy of language is one of the qualities that made Cohen’s poetry so great. With just a few words of phrases (“There is a crack in everything”; “I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch”), Cohen evokes cynicism, lust, enlightenment, defeat, and a hundred other movements of heart.
Later in the same song, Cohen says
I had no trouble betting
On the flood against the ark
You see, I knew about the ending:
What happens to the heart.
Here, too, the message is tough: chaos wins, love fails, ultimately, all is fleeting and vain. But, as in so many of the world’s best poems and songs, the spare beauty of the words undercuts the darkness of the message. Goddamn, it feels good to feel bad.
Supporting these songs, Adam Cohen wisely keeps the arrangements simple—with only a few missteps, they are perfect accompaniment to his father’s unmistakable growl—more tasteful, in fact, than on several of Cohen’s own releases. There are a bunch of guest stars—Beck, Bryce Dessner, Feist—but thankfully they’re barely noticeable.
The production even trots out, on the title track, the backing vocal arrangements familiar from 40 years of Cohen’s recordings, giving that song (“Thanks for the Dance”) a heartbreaking sense of deserved nostalgia.
And yet, some of the most powerful pieces on Thanks for the Dance are essentially poems set to music. That’s true of “The Goal,” which Cohen recites another reflection on a long life coming to a close:
Settling at last
Accounts of the soul
This, for the trash;
That, paid in full…
No one to follow
And nothing to teach
Except that the goal
Falls short of the reach.
There’s an interesting complexity in that conclusion, actually—one of many surprising Dharmic teachings in the collection.
First, as is typical in Cohen’s work, the poet effortlessly blends Jewish tradition—“accounting of the soul” is a translation of the Hebrew cheshbon ha’nefesh, which refers to the review of one’s own actions as part of a process of repentance and introspection—and Buddhist wisdom.
Here, Cohen inverts the usual cliché of “the reach falls short of the goal,” which one might expect to find in the bitter musings of an octogenarian, into “the goal falls short of the reach.” In other words: actually, there is no great meaning to life; there is no supreme accomplishment that makes it all worthwhile. Actually, the hope that there is such redemption is, itself, simply a feature of human thirst (tanha in Buddhist terms) for purpose where there is none. There’s a lot of reaching, a lot of striving, but there’s nothing really there that we’re all striving for.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, that challenging, even bleak, Dharmic teaching has been transmogrified into the more reassuring cliché of mindfulness that we should live in the present moment. Which is true enough. But the more complete picture, which Cohen here provides as the only thing he has left to teach, is that we live in the moment because that is all there is. Reaching beyond ourselves is hevel, as Ecclesiastes said: vanity, emptiness, an illusion.
Once again, Cohen says this so compactly—seven words—that it’s easy to miss him saying it at all. (That’s certainly been the fate of his best-known song, “Halleluyah,” which is often rendered as a kind of hymn of praise when in fact it’s a tortured reflection on lust, art, vanity, and the silence of God.)
A more familiar version of the same idea is contained in the album’s closer, “Listen to the Hummingbird.” There, Cohen recites simply:
Listen to the hummingbird whose wings you cannot see
Listen to the hummingbird—don’t listen to me
Listen to the butterfly, whose days but number three
Listen to butterfly—don’t listen to me
Listen to the mind of God, which doesn’t need to be
Listen to the mind of God—don’t listen to me
Cohen is, one last time, here in the role of the old sage, who perhaps perversely tells us not to listen to him. Listen to wonder; listen to the emptiness of all things; listen to the great cosmic void which may be God or may just be the rustling of leaves in the wind; listen to impermanence.
In the recording, Adam Cohen briefly interrupts the recital of this poem with some last swirling strings, guitars, and backing vocals. At first, I thought that was a strange, and bad, choice; there’s no need to augment the poet’s last words here.
But on repeated listens, I got it. It was almost as if Cohen’s old friends had gathered to say goodbye one last time, bidding the poet farewell as he goes on his final journey. It’s how I felt, too, listening to Thanks for the Dance. I was grateful for the opportunity.