You Want It Darker was the last song Leonard Cohen released prior to his death. The song is full of genius and some say it is his most brilliant piece of writing. Perhaps the greatest genius of the song is that it leaves itself open to many possible interpretations, depending on one’s own predisposition to matters of religion, faith, spirituality and life after death. For me the heart of this piece is a supreme love song, an ode to the beyond-rational devotion of faith. It sings of ultimate surrender to God, beyond reason, beyond hope, in spite of everything.
I was first introduced to this amazing song via the insightful video commentary of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who did a beautiful exegesis on this song. Rabbi Sacks , a leading Jewish intellectual, calls this track Cohen’s “most Jewish song”.
Part of the beauty is the song’s use of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. The line “Magnified, Sanctified be your holy name” is a direct translation into English of the opening words for this prayer of lamentation. Sacks interpretation that Cohen is in a sense doing Kaddish for himself is both compelling and moving.
The next lyric however, “vilified, crucified, in the human frame” would seem to be a clear reference to Jesus Christ and even assenting to the divinity of Christ. This is, in my view, an example of Leonard Cohen’s multi-faith or “Interspiritual” understanding of God and truth, being able to work in a plurality of religious frameworks without personal contradiction. This is very much a sign of the times and spiritually speaking, the shape of things to come.
Beyond Cohen’s personal reflection on his own death, the song is a statement about the brokenness of our world. It is without doubt a rather dark song, both musically and lyrically. There is a very clear sense of rejection (of God) in the opening stanza;
If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
It brings to mind the single greatest obstacle I have seen that keeps good people from believing in an unseen divine being, that is the so-called “Problem of Evil”. Simply put, the Problem of Evil, a well-known philosophic/theological dilemma poses the question “if God is all good and all powerful then why is there so much pain and suffering and brokenness and misery in the world. God must be either not all good or not all powerful, he simply cannot be both”. It is a difficult argument for believers to counter. The better attempts at explanations usually involve free-will, an evolutionary cosmos, and a loving creator that really wants us to get our act together. Certainly this goes some way to addressing the man-made problems on planet Earth (of which there are no shortage) but it is hardly satisfactory for deadly earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis or why seven year old kids suffer and sometimes die of leukaemia.
Ultimately such realities represent for us an impenetrable mystery, a great paradox. How can a God of Love allow such horrendous suffering to take place? Cohen lyrically sums it up “There’s a lover in the story, But the story’s still the same, There’s a lullaby for suffering, And a paradox to blame”.
This makes the refrain of the song all the more remarkable, with the Hebrew word “Hineni” meaning something like “Here I am” and representing the absolute surrender of Abraham to the divine will, regardless of where that might lead – even something as outrageous as killing his own son.
I’m ready, my lord
In this we have the triumph of faith, in the face of all rational reason. It is total surrender. Cohen’s lyric is reminiscent of the great line from the Book of Job when after all manner of suffering, a defiant Job utters “Even though he slay me, yet will I trust him” (13:15). It’s totally irrational, utterly senseless, absolute faith.
In the face of tremendous suffering, man-made carnage, tyranny, the darkness of the human heart, the sometimes destructiveness of nature, disease, and ultimately death, the appropriate reaction would be to reject any notion of a divine lover, to turn from faith and to accept a mindless, senseless and ultimately heartless Cosmos.
Cohen however doesn’t do this. Instead in his final hour he makes his greatest testament to his personal faith-conviction and devotional relationship to his Creator. It echoes his finest song Hallelujah, where he sings “even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!”
In the end, in spite of it all, there is acceptance and surrender. Into the mystery, into the paradox and into the Unknown. It is a monumental piece of revelatory art.