Leonard Cohen’s posthumous album proves a fitting final farewell to the poet of the soul.
Album Review by Ron Gneezy (‘21)
A mural of the late Leonard Cohen in his home city of Montreal (Wikimedia Commons)
Leonard Cohen’s music is a glorious thing that hangs over my family like a guardian angel at all times. When my parents first moved in together, my aunt gave them a cassette with two albums: on one side, Janis Ian’s Between the Lines. On the other, Songs of Leonard Cohen. From that point onward, my family has had many major experiences with Cohen’s music, from the first concert my parents went to in San Diego to listening to Old Ideas on repeat for two weeks on end in the Galapagos. Now, the last new album of his that we’ll ever hear is Thanks For the Dance.
I cannot call Thanks For the Dance Leonard Cohen’s best album — or even a top-three album of his. Nonetheless, it is a beautiful way for him to say goodbye — after he seemed to be saying goodbye for all of the 2000’s. Some songs were almost complete when he died, others were merely recordings of him rhythmically reading his poetry. Despite this, every song sounds just like how I imagine he would put music to his words — largely thanks to the production talents of his son Adam.
The album is headlined by the single “Happens to the Heart,” a very fitting choice to enter into the pantheon of Cohen’s singles — home to the legendary “Hallelujah” and the iconic “Suzanne.” The song feels like the culmination of a great theme of Cohen’s late career: the blurry lines between the love of humans and the love of God. More than that, it feels like a story of Cohen’s life: in his studies of all the religions and ideologies of the world, he met Christ and read Marx; he studied with beggars; he was scarred by the women he failed to disregard; yet through it all, he chose to focus not on what happens to him, but on what happens to all men — to the hearts of men.
In reflecting on his own heart, though, Cohen wrote “Moving On,” the one song on the album with a known backstory: Leonard Cohen’s first partner, muse, and soulmate apparent, Marianne Ihlen, passed away mere months before his own curtain call, prompting him to compose an oft-circulated, oft-misquoted letter to be read aloud at her funeral. It seems that, for every word he failed to say to her in life, he added another word to this tribute — a tribute to the “queen of lilac, queen of blue.” The composition of the track itself is hauntingly beautiful. Javier Mas, a colleague of Cohen’s who joined him for his final tours, can be heard playing his friend’s discarded acoustic guitar with virtuosity, bringing lightness and sincerity to the piece.
Cohen would begin every concert with a performance of “Dance Me to the End of Love,” and would often use “Take This Waltz” as a midpoint. For the ending of this story which spans decades, one can turn to the album’s namesake, “Thanks For the Dance.” Perhaps the most quaint song from the album — feeling as though it would be at home on his first album as well as his last — it feels like a waltz that would be perfect for anybody trying to learn the dance. The instrumentation and tone almost carry a celebratory feel, though tinged with Cohen’s trademark melancholy cynicism.
The final song on the album, “Listen to the Hummingbird,” feels distinct from the rest of Cohen’s catalogue. The recording of his voice here was not destined for the studio. It was just the last poem he read at the press conference for the release of his album You Want it Darker, only two weeks before his death. In the poem, Cohen specifically calls for his listeners not to listen to him — to listen to the unseen, the unknown, or the short-lived. Cohen resigns himself to the background, content with the idea that he will speak no more, because he has said the last words he cares to speak.
Thanks For the Dance may be slightly below the quality of Cohen’s numerous other swan songs, but it is still a fantastic experience. Sonically pleasing, lyrically intense, spiritually settling. So many songs feel like Cohen’s last words on the stories of his life — the balance of debauchery and study, the eternities with and aeons apart from his love, and the very idea of his own legacy, just to name a few. Through his friends, families and colleagues, the immortal words of Leonard Cohen have been given a fitting moral conclusion.