Your Life is Burning Well: A Review of “Thanks for the Dance” by Leonard Cohen

What do you want people to say at your funeral?

From the comfort of the casket, would you prefer a weeping violin or a cheerful trumpet? And what about the reception—still or champagne? Waterworks or fireworks?

Of course, it’s not up to you. They’ll do as they see fit; all you can do is leave with dignity.

Put your house in order. Shut the windows, turn off the lights, scour every corner so that you may reunite your orphaned socks. Don’t go starting projects you can’t finish. Fill in the cracks, recover the deposit. On your way out, close the door as gently as you can lest you wake the neighbors.

Such was the message of You Want It Darker, Leonard Cohen’s first farewell album, in 2016. Under the cover of mournful strings, Cohen sang about “leaving the table,” being “out of the game,” and “traveling light.” Gone was the ladies’ man, or if not gone, at least subdued. He traded the gospel singers for an all-male choir, and the lush organ-filled arrangements for sparse, acoustic compositions. A haunting, elegant requiem, itself the subject of much eloquence by grieving reviewers the world over, from the usual websites down to the uncharacteristically reverential YouTube comment sections. But not exactly a festive affair. 

In fact, shortly before the album’s release, in an interview with the New Yorker, he famously warned us: “I’m ready to die.” A few days later, he softened his statement: “I think I was exaggerating. I’ve always been into self-dramatization. I intend to live forever.” 

Cohen’s second and final farewell album Thanks for the Dance is to You Want It Darker what “I intend to live forever” is to “I’m ready to die.” Though he did not have time to revise his parting shot himself, he entrusted the task to his son and partner in rhyme Adam Cohen. Adam, in turn, enlisted a host of collaborators old and new to help him execute his and his father’s joint vision. The result is a beautiful poetry recital, the musicians stepping back respectfully so the spotlight can rest squarely on Cohen’s gravelly voice and lyrics. Which is not to say the music, composed for the most part by Adam, is an afterthought—the acoustic guitars, the soft keys, the handful of horns, just take care not to steal the show. The musicians clearly made every effort to stay true to their idea of what Cohen would have wanted, and it’s a moving homage. Even though they recorded their parts all over the world, even though the lyrics had been recorded long before, it feels as if they’re all in the same room. 

Traces of sorrow remain throughout, but lust and romance make a comeback to revitalize Cohen’s last dance. The album opens to a meditation on heartbreak, “Happens to the Heart.” In “Moving On,” he remembers a lover: “You ruled me with your beauty, though I knew/Twas more hormonal than the view.” Next is the least decorous song on the album, “The Night of Santiago,” a ballad staging his affair with a married woman: “Behind a fine embroidery/Her nipples rose like bread/Then I took off my necktie/And she took off her dress/My belt and pistol set aside/We tore away the rest.” The ladies’ man is back, even if he appears wounded. 

As if responding to that opening salvo, the title track “Thanks for the Dance” looks back: “Thanks for the dance/It was hell, it was swell, it was fun/Thanks for all the dances/One two three, one two three one.” It’s still final, it’s still a sendoff, but the somber tone from You Want It Darker has lifted. Even the devastating one-minute poem “The Goal,” in which Cohen is “Settling at last/Accounts of the soul/This for the trash/That paid in full,” ends on a hopeful note: “No one to follow/And nothing to teach/Except that the goal/Falls short of the reach.” It’s the culmination of a lifetime of introspection and deep reflection, and it’s surprisingly uplifting—don’t sell yourself short, you’re capable of more than you think. 

In the last track, Cohen makes light of it all with a final flourish. “Listen to the hummingbird/Whose wings you cannot see/Listen to the hummingbird/Don’t listen to me.” Thanks to the ironic twist of telling his listeners not to listen to him, Cohen has it both ways. You can take him at his word and not take him so seriously, in which case You Want It Darker becomes less dark—it’s just music, man. Or you can admire the old man who still marvels at the beauty of the universe and then Thanks for the Dance becomes a celebration of life, for all its flaws and fragility.

So, maybe don’t put your house in order after all. Crack a window, light a candle, leave the stove on. Open a bottle of wine and leave it on the table for whoever’s next. Take a single guitar lesson. Slam the door behind you.

In other words, exist. Don’t worry about your legacy.

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