Suffering from terminal leukemia and profound back pain from compression fractures of the spine, the man who wrote and sang Dance Me to the End of Love was finding it difficult to make it the other side of the room. And yet, in Leonard Cohen’s frail condition, he would get up out of his medical chair with his cane in hand and dance, sometimes throwing his arms around his son as he did so. “He would say, ‘The Cohen boys, they’ll never get us, let’s make several more records,'" Adam Cohen recalls.
Leonard Cohen died on Nov. 7, 2016, at age 82. This Friday, his clever and colourful posthumous LP Thanks for the Dance is to be released. It’s a final farewell, with no future studio albums likely to come, despite Cohen’s last-days hope for more collaborations with his producer-musician son. “It was a sad declaration,” Adam says, speaking on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I knew he wasn’t going to be around to do any such thing.”
Thanks for the Dance uses sketches of songs and vocals recorded during the sessions for the 2016 album You Want It Darker, released shortly before Cohen’s death. The vocals – faintly melodic, for Cohen was never especially tuneful – were laid down in the living room of his L.A. home. Musical collaborators contributed their parts remotely, by e-mail. For Thanks for the Dance, Adam waited seven months before beginning the process of building the arrangements around his father’s last recorded words. The production choices, which often revisit sounds from Cohen albums from decades ago, were arrived at instinctively.
“There’s was a remote-control quality to the making of this album,” Adam says. “It wasn’t me as much as it was my father. That’s how powerful he was, mentally, at the end.”
Cohen’s baritone was built to seduce, but also to soothe – on this final album more than ever, the intimate, reverberating vocals reaching one’s bones. And if the listener can hear that palliative quality in their earbuds, imagine what that rich deadpan delivery sounds like through professional-quality speakers. “Not many people get to work with their parent’s voice, and to be enveloped by it,” Adam says. “I’m grateful to my father for it.”
According to Adam, prominent producers such as Don Was, Daniel Lanois and Rick Rubin came calling in recent years in the hope of working with the musician-poet. Lanois, in fact, plays on three of the new album’s nine tracks, adding piano to Happens to the Heart and The Night of Santiago and guitar effects to It’s Torn. “These record-makers are much more accomplished than myself,” Adam admits. “But I had the advantage of knowing intimately what my father liked and disliked.”
On Thanks for the Dance, Cohen’s own lexicon is borrowed – thankfully nothing from the toy-synthesizer years. “It’s a journey through his musical signatures,” Adam says. Indeed, the waltzing title track is a new version of a song originally recorded by Cohen’s former partner Anjani Thomas on her 2006 album Blue Alert. Background vocals are supplied by long-time Cohen collaborator Jennifer Warnes (and Leslie Feist). The new version evokes the grandness of Dance Me to the End of Love more than it honours the original version by Thomas.
Elsewhere the Mediterranean flourishes of past Cohen recordings are resurrected, accompanied on The Night of Santiago by an old man’s wistful erotica. “Her thighs, they slipped away like schools of startled fish,” Cohen speak-sings. “Though I’ve forgotten half my life, I still remember this.” As one would.
“I begged him to record that one,” Adams says. “It’s so powerful.” The song is a translation of The Faithless Wife, a poem by Federico García Lorca. Cohen had previously adapted Lorca’s words for Take This Waltz, found on 1988′s I’m Your Man. That album closes with these words: “You’ll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone/ I’ll be speaking to you sweetly, from a window in the Tower of Song.”
The man kept his word.
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