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.
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.