Album Review: Leonard Cohen Does a Fitting Last Waltz on Thanks for the Dance
The Lowdown: As a poet, lyricist, and all-around inquisitive human being, Leonard Cohen spent a lifetime exploring the sacred and the profane, the meaning of life and death, and pleasures both physical and divine. From Old Ideas in 2012 through the 2016 LP You Want It Darker, the specter of his own mortality became a dominant theme in his work. On the chorus to the title track on the latter album, Cohen rasped, “I’m ready, my Lord.” Considering he passed away within a few weeks of its release, it appeared that Cohen was quite serious about being ready.
Apparently, not quite as ready as we thought. Before his death, Cohen had penned lyrics and recorded vocals to another batch of songs. With that framework in place, he left responsibility for composing and completing their arrangements in the hands of his son, Adam. Thanks for the Dance is the result of their collaborative efforts.
The Good: As he had throughout his last years, Cohen reflects on the sunset of his life with a mix of sadness, resignation, and nostalgic warmth. He uses opening track “Happens to the Heart” to sum up 82 years of life and his pursuits: “I was always working steady/ But I never called it art/ I got my shit together/ Meeting Christ and reading Marx/ It failed my little fire/ But it’s bright the dying spark.”
Musically, it recalls his late 1960s and early ’70s material, an approach that holds true throughout Thanks for the Dance. Take a song like the coyly lecherous “The Night of Santiago”. If time, chain smoking, and failing health hadn’t so radically morphed Cohen’s voice, it would sound right at home on an album like 1974’s New Skin for Old Ceremony.
This hearkening back to the past makes for near perfection on the exquisite finale, “Listen to the Hummingbird”. Running a brief two minutes, it’s hard to hear it without thinking of “Bird on the Wire” and the bird serving as a symbol for freedom. This time around, Cohen rejects himself as any source of wisdom and calls on listeners to “listen to the hummingbird, whose wings you cannot see.”
The Bad: In choosing to surround his father’s final words with simple, familiar arrangements, Adam Cohen created a set of music that’s warm and comforting. It’s just a little too comforting, hewing so closely to those familiar musical themes at the expense of the different textures and rhythm structures that made Leonard Cohen’s last few albums such gems and gave him one of the most sneakily diverse catalogs of work of any singer-songwriter. This approach doesn’t necessarily mar the listening experience, but it is a mild disappointment.
The Verdict: Each of the nine songs and poems that comprise Thanks for the Dance is a self-contained, coherent piece of art that perfectly fits in the Cohen canon, making it a worthwhile listening experience and a poignant farewell from one of music’s greatest and most eloquent writers.
Essential Tracks: “Happens to the Heart”, “The Night of Santiago”, and “Listen to the Hummingbird”