Leonard Cohen’s Final Testament: ‘Thanks for the Dance’
Welcome to Chai Brow, Moment’s weekly arts column exploring contemporary film, TV and podcasts from a Jewish lens.
Leonard Cohen was the world’s rabbi. The folk singer and poet from Montreal, who died in 2016 at the age of 82, was a guiding light for Jewish thought, in tune with the rhythms and ruminations of life like few other entertainment figures before or since. He blended the sacred and the profane in his own search for a deeper meaning—finding truth in the Torah, yes, but also in sex, travel and the simple thrill of artistic creation.
Cohen released his intended final album, You Want It Darker, only weeks before his death. It was a bitter dirge that felt like a signpost planted firmly on the edge of a cliff, the kind of swan song most artists can only dream of: going out on your own terms, saying what you needed to say. The title track incorporated a cantorial chant of “Hineni” (which translates to “here I am”), Abraham’s response to God’s call; “I’m ready, my Lord,” Cohen sang in a deep, growling voice weathered by age. He was going home.
But just before Thanksgiving of this year, Cohen’s son Adam oversaw the release of a posthumous collection, Thanks for the Dance. A mix of tracks and poems that the artist had left in various states of completion before his death, these snippets are fleshed out with Adam’s production and a network of collaborators including Beck, Feist, members of Arcade Fire and The National, and longtime Cohen accomplices Jennifer Warnes and Javier Mas. The material can often feel slight, and its incomplete nature is a bit spooky: Sometimes Cohen trails off mid-thought, his musings reconstituted around someone else’s instrumental harmonies. Collectively, though, the fragmentation adds to Cohen’s mystical power as a guide to Jewish life and what lies beyond.
The singer’s familiar mix of dread and good humor is apparent in the opener, “Happens to the Heart,” which at various points defines that title line in terms both metaphorical and medical. Over a simple guitar strumming and occasional piano phrase, the song charts a bit of Cohen’s spiritual evolution (he alludes to the Zen monk Sasaki Roshi, with whom he studied for years before a series of allegations of Roshi’s sexual abuse broke shortly before his death) and also gently ribs Cohen’s fatalistic approach to his own faith: “I had no trouble betting / On the flood, against the Ark.” Cohen’s brand of Judaism was always one of complexity and introspection, often turning the text’s lessons against each other.
Maybe Cohen had already said all he came on this earth to say when he died. In that case, Dance feels like the work of someone tying up loose ends—“settling at last / accounts of the soul”—and shrugging when he can’t figure out how. “Moving On” is a final goodbye to old flame Marianne Ihlen, the subject of “So Long, Marianne,” who died four months before Cohen (a documentary about their relationship was released this summer). The song is dreary, cold: “As if there ever was a you,” Cohen muses, negating the love he once felt now that the recipient of it is dead. It’s the sourness of the inevitable creeping in. By contrast, the album’s title track is a graceful waltz, a natural companion piece to “Take This Waltz” and “Dance Me to the End of Love,” in which Cohen offers a note of simple gratitude for the attentions we’ve paid him. He even intones the steps himself: “One-two-three, one-two-three, one.” It’s up there with some of his best work.
The most explicit reference to Judaism comes in “Puppets,” which opens with the Holocaust (“German puppets burned the Jews / Jewish puppets could not choose”) before backing up even further and placing all of humanity inside the realm of puppetry. Do we have free will? Do we have authority over the awful things we do? Are we victims or perpetrators of our own misery? Cohen, as always, doesn’t want to give us the answers. In his final track, the slim “Listen to the Hummingbird,” he shrugs off the implication that he could have ever been our spiritual adviser. The song is a litany of the people and things we should be listening to, other than him: hummingbirds, butterflies, “the mind of God.” It’s a bit of humility at the end of the road, an admission that our guiding light doesn’t want the responsibility we’ve entrusted him with.
No matter what Cohen insists, though, I firmly believe his words will be the ones to heal me on the day my own dance ends.