A Last Dance for Leonard Cohen

The last time Leonard Cohen appeared in public was in mid-October 2016 at a Los Angeles news conference for his 14th studio album, “You Want It Darker,” just a few weeks before his death. Behind him hung a Canadian flag and beside him sat his son, Adam, a musician who had served as producer on the stirring LP. At one point Cohen, stooped and frail but sharp as ever in an impeccably tailored black suit, treated the audience to a recitation from a piece still in progress. He drew a breath, and then in that inimitable baritone, he began:

Listen to the hummingbird
Whose wings you cannot see
Listen to the hummingbird
Don’t listen to me

The audience applauded, and Cohen — who retreated at the height of his fame to live for five years in a Buddhist monastery — demurred with a characteristically self-abnegating joke: “I would say the hummingbird deserves the royalties on that one.” The interviewer asked if the song would appear on his next album. Said the ailing, 82-year-old Cohen, “God willing.”

It seems to have been his will. “Listen to the Hummingbird” is the final track on Cohen’s posthumous new album, “Thanks for the Dance,” which will be released on Friday. The raw audio of that passage from the news conference was tracked down by Adam Cohen and the engineer Michael Chaves, who mixed out the buzzing tone of the room’s halogen lights and composed around it a gentle, unobtrusive piano melody. Adam had already done the same for many of the other vocal takes and half-finished songs his father left behind.

The vocals that make up the other eight songs on “Thanks for the Dance” were all recorded during the “You Want It Darker” sessions, though Adam does not believe they should be considered “discarded songs or B sides.”

“They’re a continuation,” he said on the phone one recent morning from his home in Los Angeles. “Had we had more time and had he been more robust, we would have gotten to them.” He said he and his father had discussed finishing the songs. “The conversations were about what instrumentation and what feelings he wanted the completed work to evoke — sadly, the fact that I would be completing them without him was given.”

Though the last decade of Cohen’s life was remarkably productive and full of pleasant surprises — a trio of well-received records; a long, triumphant world tour that often found him performing for more than three hours a night — by the time of these final recordings he was unwell, suffering from leukemia and compression fractures of the spine. His decision to have his son produce these sessions, during which he often had to use an orthopedic medical chair, was partially about his own comfort: “He didn’t want some stranger in his living room,” Adam said. Still, he approached the work with his signature discipline. “Most of the time, even in acute pain, he would muster the energy to put on a suit and a fedora.”

In the last days of his life, the ever-meticulous Cohen was determined to bring his final poems and songs up to his exacting standards; “it was what he was staying alive to do,” Adam wrote in the foreword to “The Flame,” a book collecting this work that was published in 2018. He would sometimes send “do not disturb” emails to loved ones, in an effort to eke out precious writing time.

What is remarkable about “The Flame,” “You Want It Darker” and now “Thanks for the Dance” is the clarity and self-awareness with which Cohen wrestles with his own impending death. “I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game,” he sang with a low, deliberate finality on the 2016 record.

But there is a playfulness to “Thanks for the Dance” that sets it apart from the previous album. Leslie Feist, who contributed backing vocals on “Dance,” called it “profound and very light” in an email. “Like everyone else, I thought we’d heard the last of Leonard Cohen, but no,” she said. “Here was this life-force clarity, this twinkle in his eye.”

In his final creative period, Cohen continued to look to younger artists for inspiration, and was particularly impressed by the lyricism he heard in rappers like Kendrick Lamar. “I remember him once trying to soothe his pain while we were working with medical marijuana, and him putting on FKA twigs and ranting for a good 45 minutes about what a genius she was,” Adam said.

That liveliness permeates the record. The spry opening track “Happens to the Heart” follows the classic Cohen tradition of undercutting the classically romantic with modern banalities (“There was a mist of summer kisses/Where I tried to double-park”), while the wistfully sensual “Night of Santiago” finds an aged man reflecting back on a vivid memory of passion. One of the most elegiac songs, “Moving On,” is a tribute to his former lover and muse Marianne Ihlen; Adam said his father recorded the vocal take heard on the album in late May 2016, just after he learned that Ihlen had died.

“There’s this trajectory for a lot of musicians to make their most important work when they’re young,” said Beck, a longtime Cohen fan who also contributed to “Thanks for the Dance. “When you see an artist who’s able to transcend that, to still be able to deepen with age, it’s really inspiring. As a performer it gives you hope that there’s still a place to go.”

Adam said his father “was very conscious to be writing from the rung of life at which he found himself.”

“He was not trying to be a nostalgia act, like so many of his contemporaries,” he added. “He wasn’t going backwards. He would say to me, ‘I am taking the inner life very seriously.’ And I think that’s why it resonates so deeply to us. It wasn’t an act. This was a devotional investigation into wherever he found himself.”

After Cohen died on Nov. 7, 2016, after a fall in the night, Adam could not bring himself to listen to the unfinished songs. But around seven months later, he “got a tiny bit of courage” and opened up the sessions.

One of the first people he asked to help was Javier Mas, the renowned Spanish laud player and guitarist who had accompanied Cohen on tour since 2008. Their bond was deep: Cohen was known to take off his hat and bow at Mas’s feet while he soloed; the guitarist had taught himself English partly by translating the singer’s lyrics.

“It was very special because I had the voice of Leonard on the headphones, so present,” Mas said in a phone interview from Zurich. “After many years of playing with him, you learn the way he likes things to be done. So we tried to honor him.”

On the road, Cohen had often spoken reverentially to Mas about an old Spanish guitar he had back home, and how its cedar fragrance was still as strong as the day he’d acquired it some 40 years before. “You know that wood never dies,” Cohen once said. These sessions gave Mas his first opportunity to play his departed friend’s guitar. Between takes, Adam would sometimes see Mas sticking his nose near its sound hole and inhaling deeply.

“Thanks for the Dance” also features contributions from the National’s Bryce Dessner, Cohen’s former collaborator Jennifer Warnes and the producer Daniel Lanois, everyone blending into the mix in the finished product. “There’s that Jewish tradition of bringing a tiny rock or stone to a grave site,” Adam said. “I felt like every person was there to just humbly deposit their little rock near the engraving of his name.”

It’s a fitting tribute for Cohen, for whom the song always reigned supreme. “With Leonard I learned so many interesting things,” Mas said. “The way he treats the people he’s working with, and the way he treats his work and the song — he’s only worried about the song. Not about himself, not about fame.”

The most moving one on the new record is the title track. Cohen had written an earlier version of it for his former partner Anjani Thomas’s 2006 album “Blue Alert.” Her voice was softly alluring, but his version is transformative. “One-two-three/One-two-three-one,” he counts off in a sprightly croak. You can hear in the delivery an exhaustion, a heaviness of the body. But somehow in the movements of that golden voice, he’s still dancing.

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NYT > Arts > Music

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