You Want It Darker
After a long life, he was ready.
BY JONATHAN MAHLER
It wasn’t an email from God, but it was close. Leonard Cohen had written to ask if Gideon Zelermyer, the cantor of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim near Montreal — Cohen’s childhood synagogue — was interested in recording with him.
Zelermyer was soon sitting inside the synagogue’s sanctuary with a few members of Shaar’s all-male choir, playing with different arrangements for “You Want It Darker,” the title track of Cohen’s 14th and final studio album. Some of the words Cohen had given them to work with were familiar; they were borrowed from two of Judaism’s holiest prayers. One is the Kaddish, recited by mourners after the death of a loved one. The other is the High Holy Days prayer Hineni — literally, “Here I am” — a personal entreaty to God, the worshiper asking plaintively for mercy. The choir’s voices are the first sounds you hear on the album, their ethereal harmonics giving way to sparse instrumentation and Cohen’s weary, subterranean growl, then returning to back up the song’s choruses and final movement.
This was hardly the first time that Cohen had drawn on his Judaism for his music. Though he had a complicated relationship with his religious inheritance, it provided a natural vocabulary for him; it was what he knew, and its stories of human suffering and, occasionally, redemption suited his poet’s pull toward the existential. But never before have Cohen’s biblical references felt so charged, so dark, so pointed. “Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name,” he sings. “Vilified, crucified, in the human frame. A million candles burning for the help that never came. You want it darker.” Then, echoing the words that Abraham spoke as he answered God’s command to sacrifice his only son: “Hineni, I’m ready, my Lord.”
You can’t listen to these words without thinking about the fact that Cohen was dying when he recorded them. It’s one thing to meditate on faith and mortality when death is an abstraction. It is surely another when you can feel it bearing down on you. And yet the choir’s harmonies manage to transform the song, lifting Cohen’s solitary struggle into something universal, even eternal.
Cohen once said that he did not think of himself as a religious person, but his life was in many ways an extended spiritual journey. Buddhism, Scientology, kabbalah, Hare Krishna, Hinduism — Cohen sampled them all. Yet in his final years, he found himself drawn back to the 171-year-old synagogue where he had become a bar mitzvah, where both his grandfather and great-grandfather served as presidents, where a photograph of his Hebrew-school class taken in 1949 still hangs on the wall. Cohen was living in Los Angeles, but a cousin in Montreal sent him a recording of Zelermyer and his choir, reuniting Cohen with sounds that had never stopped echoing in his head. He and the cantor struck up an email correspondence. “May your voice reach that Place and bring down the blessings,” Cohen wrote Zelermyer in 2008, before the High Holy Days. (“He can’t write anything normally, can he?” the cantor remembers thinking.) And then several years later came the note, asking for help with a new record. As Cohen put it, “I’m looking for a sound like the Shaar choir and cantor of my youth.”
In October, the record-release event for “You Want It Darker” was held at the residence of the Canadian consul general in Los Angeles. Zelermyer was seated with the other V.I.P.s in the front row. It was the first time he had met Cohen in person. It would also be the last. Weeks later, Cohen’s coffin was lowered into the earth at Shaar Hashomayim’s cemetery. Zelermyer stood next to Cohen’s family as they recited the Kaddish.♦
Jonathan Mahler is a staff writer for the magazine.