How Leonard Cohen & David Bowie Faced Death Through Their Art: A Look at Their Final Albums

When Leonard Cohen released You Want it Dark­er in late 2016, some sus­pect­ed that it would be his last album. When the 82-year-old singer-song­writer died nine­teen days lat­er, it felt like a reprise of David Bowie’s pas­sage from this mor­tal coil at the begin­ning of that year in which we lost so many impor­tant musi­cians: just two days after the release of his album Black­star, Bowie shocked the world by dying of an ill­ness he’d cho­sen not to make pub­lic. Both Cohen and Bowie’s fans imme­di­ate­ly dou­bled down their scruti­ny of what turned out to be their final works, find­ing in both of them artis­tic inter­pre­ta­tions of the con­fronta­tion with death.

The title track of You Want It Dark­er, says the nar­ra­tor of the Poly­phon­ic video essay above, “is not just any song, but the cul­mi­na­tion of many med­i­ta­tions on Cohen’s own mor­tal­i­ty. The result is a haunt­ing­ly accusato­ry song towards his own god.”

This analy­sis focus­es on lines, deliv­ered by Cohen’s grav­e­li­er-than-ever singing voice, like “If you are the deal­er, I’m out of the game / If you are the heal­er, that means I’m bro­ken and lame” and “If thine is the glo­ry, then mine must be the shame / You want it dark­er, we kill the flame.” Cohen also uses phras­es tak­en from a Jew­ish mourn­er’s prayer as a way of “fac­ing up to his god and sub­mit­ting.”

The non-reli­gious Bowie took a dif­fer­ent tack. “Just take a look at Bowie’s cos­tume,” says the essay’s nar­ra­tor. “He’s ban­daged, frail, and mani­a­cal in the ‘Black­star’ video. While the ban­dage serves to rep­re­sent wounds, it can also be tak­en as a blind­fold,” his­tor­i­cal­ly “worn by those con­demned to exe­cu­tion.” Using Chris­t­ian imagery, Bowie frames his song “in the post-par­adise world of mor­tal life,” in a sense ref­er­enc­ing what Cohen once described as “our blood myth,” the cru­ci­fix­ion. And so Bowie’s song “is using our cul­tur­al vocab­u­lary to explore our rela­tion­ship with death.” And yet, “in the midst of this dark song, Bowie offers opti­mism” in the form of the tit­u­lar Black­star, a “new­ly inspired being” that emerges from death.

“While mankind can’t cheat death, we can still find immor­tal­i­ty in the way peo­ple remem­ber us, the lega­cy that they car­ry on.” And despite rec­og­niz­ing their basic human­i­ty, many of us car­ri­ers of the lega­cy still strug­gle to process the deaths of high-pro­file, sui gener­is per­form­ing artists. Maybe it has to do with their sta­tus as icons, and icons, strict­ly speak­ing, can’t die — but nor can they live. Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, the men, may have fin­ished their days, and what days they were, but Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, the cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­na, will sure­ly out­last us all.

You can lis­ten to Cohen and Bowie’s final albums above. If you need Spo­ti­fy’s free soft­ware, get it here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leonard Cohen Has Passed at Age 82: His New and Now Final Album Is Stream­ing Free Online

Hear Leonard Cohen’s Final Inter­view: Record­ed by David Rem­nick of The New York­er

Say Good­bye to Leonard Cohen Through Some of His Best-Loved Songs: “Hal­lelu­jah,” “Suzanne” and 235 Oth­er Tracks

David Bowie Sings “Changes” in His Last Live Per­for­mance, 2006

Dave: The Best Trib­ute to David Bowie That You’re Going to See

Death: A Free Phi­los­o­phy Course from Yale

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Cile says:

    Thank you for this very time­ly essay. It is fas­ci­nat­ing to see how art can car­ry us all to greater under­stand­ing and sup­port us to be bet­ter human beings.

  • Stephanie Donegan says:

    Thank You Mr Col­in Mar­shall.
    This is an excel­lent piece.
    Art in Life and Death.
    No more and yet lots more.
    We await.

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