In his final months Leonard Cohen was battling cancer and spinal injuries and yet he still managed to create one of the most acclaimed LPs in his catalog. This is the inside story of how, with the help of his son, it all came together.
Leonard Cohen’s final masterpiece, You Want it Darker, was the fruit of an impossibly intimate collaboration. Restricted to his Los Angeles compound and suffering from spinal injuries and cancer, Cohen was determined to realize his vision. He recruited his son, singer-songwriter Adam Cohen, as producer, giving the project a special, familial energy that can be heard throughout the album. The elder Cohen was in loving company, drawing out a focus that was only amplified by his ailments. He mustered the strength to find his last words, and sang them from his recliner until he got each line right.
Adam Cohen studied his father’s music for decades, and used that knowledge to produce warm, organic, minimalist arrangements that proved the ideal backdrop for his father’s “low, gravelly, prophetic voice.” You Want it Darker would be widely acclaimed as one of Leonard Cohen’s best albums, a fitting last act for a master and mensch who loomed large in so many minds. The story of how this was achieved is as awe-inspiring as the music. In this oral history of You Want it Darker’s production, Adam Cohen tells the inside story of working with an artist who was both his idol and his father.
*— Leon Dische Becker *
Almost as a hobby, my father would try to guess what someone wanted and give it to them before they asked. It was sort of a paranormal act of generosity, another extraordinary interest in his repertoire. So when he asked me to help with his last project, it seemed appropriate. It was to be one last father and son bonding experience. That last fishing trip.
My father was suffering from serious health issues including multiple compression fractures in his spine. They were injuries that would have immobilized anyone, and it involved a huge effort on his part to focus. Having someone close to him was a natural fit. Even though he was wearing a suit and sitting in his own living room, he was an old, frail man and didn’t want to contend with a stranger while completing his work. I had consulted with him on his last few albums, and had introduced him to Pat Leonard who produced two records for my father: 2012’s Old Ideas and 2015’s Popular Problems. Throughout their collaboration, I felt like I had a responsibility as a kind of broker between them. My father would often voice his enthusiasm and concerns to me over the direction that his records were taking. As we worked together, my confidence grew. Shoptalk took place between a father and his son; a dialogue was established.
I’d always studied my father’s music. And I always knew where he was in his life, so I could suspend my own tastes, my aesthetic palate, and just see his paranormal devotion, his originality and his truth, and his disinterest in dealing with slogans. The writing was so towering: the position of the narrator, the authority of his work.
Musically, the albums had sometimes taken aesthetic dimensions that didn’t reflect my personal taste. I had a view of Leonard Cohen as a musical entity that I think many people share, which is that his “most definitive work” was in a past era. The last record he made that sounded organic was probably The Future from 1992. I had always been candid about my feelings about his more recent work, and about my preference for his older work aesthetically. By asking me to help, I think that he’d already acquiesced to the notion that there was going to be a slight palate change.
My interest was in reconciling the voice that he had found—that low, gravelly, prophetic voice—and bringing it back to a more acoustic, organic space. That was one of the things I tried to bring to You Want it Darker. If my father had still been strong and robust, he would have fought me, and I would’ve lost. But in this particular instance, I think he really enjoyed the minimalism that I was vying for. His work had such a singular and authoritative vision that the minimal, acoustic accompaniment was appropriate.
He always needed to be alone to write. He would often wake up at four in the morning and have an entire pot of coffee, and write and rewrite with monastic devotion. While the rest of us were sleeping, he would produce what I consider to be his masterpieces.
Agreeing on production is like building a house. You lay out the plans, you discuss materials like the wood for the floorboards, the choice of wall, the materials on the kitchen counter, the types of window glass or the drawers. We went into great detail. The dialogue was so clear and clean because I’d been speaking with him my entire life.
He was still the commander, though, and there’s nothing on the record that he didn’t want. I felt like a pilot fish underneath a whale. My GPS was completely linked to his, so I felt like I wasn’t taking liberties that he hadn’t validated or cleared.
It was us two and an engineer camping out in my father’s living room in Los Angeles. I set up a little studio in there. There was very little aesthetic planning; it was was all about urgency and comfort. We set up the Pro Tools rig and some nice speakers on the dining room table. We had a couple of beautiful mics and a couple preamps around the room where we could plug in a keyboard or a bass. We established him in the living room in a sort of medical reclining chair that he also felt comfortable sleeping and eating in.
We would sketch and capture vocal performances and then tie them together. Then I would go away to my studio, put together the tracks, present them to him, and then he’d take out his carving knife. Things that he didn’t like we discarded, and things he did like we kept. It was very uncomplicated in that sense. The heavy lifting was always done by his hands. The singularity of his vision and the stirring vocal performances informed everything. He wasn’t always grimacing in pain, head burrowed and eyebrows furrowed. There was an amazing amount of laughter and levity. We took long breaks on the balcony. He started smoking again; there was a lot of medical marijuana. Sometimes we would philosophize and just talk about anything that was on his mind, whether it was current events or past love lives or favorite foods. Then there were episodes where he would pull himself up with his cane, close his eyes and sway to the music that we were making. Other times, he was monastically quiet. Almost every emotion went into the album. Sometimes it was joyous, sometimes deeply reflective.
We found ourselves riding mysterious winds fueled by the grace of the occasion. There was an extra glint in his eyes because he was working with his son who had been seduced by the family business. The Cohen boys were making a record. It was kind of a denouement, a catharsis.
I remember asking my father on many occasions how he was mustering these incredible vocals. Even without music they contained an entire culture and story. He told me, “It’s because I’m immobilized, and I have so few distractions.” His delicate physical condition lent the process a sense of urgency. He had an incredible gravity and authority and clarity, this narrator at the end of his life. It added this other transcendent potential to the project.
The choir on You Want it Darker’s eponymous opening track was one of those magical moments where we had the same idea at the same time. We had been looking to add a different sound to the record. I said maybe we should use men’s voices, and he immediately identified who should do it: The choir at the synagogue he attended when he was a child in Montreal. There was something sentimentally beautiful about us trying to employ voices he heard as a child at the end of his life. I went to Montreal to record the choir and head cantor Gideon Zelermyer. It became one of the signature sounds of the album.
I recorded all that was happening and it felt like an eternity. It’s like being a young teenager, when a summer feels like a whole year to you because someone left an indelible impression. This chapter of my life is the one that’s emblazoned in me. It was such a powerful lasting exchange. With parents, there’s always a time where the curtain gets pulled and you see their other side that they don’t show the rest of the world. This was a full exposure. He allowed me into his creative process, and to see vulnerabilities, pathologies, and was display of incredible mastery. I’d been watching him from the side of the stage since I was five years old. Seeing him at this place in his arc was truly a gift I will never recover from.