I love comics.
I always have. My grandfather used to take me to the Franklin News store in the center of my old hometown and pay for comics for me. Usually Spider-Man, since he was my favorite – even at 10 years old, I identified with the shy and nerdy Peter Parker. But I really started to love the sequential arts when I found Casablanca Comics in Windham, Maine, just down the street from the college I attended in the early ‘90s. It was there that I first discovered that comics could be (and often were) more than men and women in capes punching each other for ridiculous stakes. There were comics for adults, comics that tackled weighty themes and came complete with healthy helpings of sex and swearing.
I was 18, and this was exactly what I was looking for. I’d read Sandman, and I’d dabbled in Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer, but that was about it. It was that latter one – Hellblazer, the story of magical con man John Constantine – that really led me into the next 20-plus years of reading grown-up comics. But I truly came aboard that title in 1993, when Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon started their epic run. I’ve been collecting and reading comics for most of my life, and I have rarely seen a writer and artist sync up so completely as Ennis and Dillon did on that run of issues.
And when it was over, they launched their joint magnum opus, Preacher. A rowdy, irreverent and gleefully nauseating romp through America on a quest to find God, Preacher remains one of my favorite books from the ‘90s. The characters were richly drawn by both Ennis and Dillon, and the art, while certainly lingering on some of the more disgusting aspects of the tale, remained sympathetic to characters like Arseface, making him a tragic figure instead of an object of ridicule. With Preacher, Ennis and Dillon painted on a wide canvas, taking on difficult questions with a shoot-from-the-hip attitude. It’s a hell of a book.
We lost Steve Dillon this week. He was only 54 years old, and died of complications from a ruptured appendix. The bloody 2016 took a little time off, but now it appears to be back to work, and this one hurts. Dillon’s art was instantly recognizable, and I still associate it with my college years, when I began digging into an art form I cherish to this day. I owe him a lot. Rest in peace, Steve.
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It’s fitting that we begin this week’s column with a eulogy, since death moves between every note and line of the only album I have on tap, Leonard Cohen’s astonishing You Want It Darker.
Cohen is 82 years old now, and every time he makes a record, it may be his last. He’s always been obsessed with death, but You Want It Darker is the first one in which I feel that knowledge, that preparation for his own mortality, everywhere. It almost didn’t happen – Cohen began recording last year with Patrick Leonard, but a severe back injury halted the sessions. Cohen’s son Adam stepped in, and ended up producing six of the nine tracks on the album. Cohen expresses his gratitude in the liner notes, and I can’t help but add my own. You Want It Darker is the most captivating album of Cohen’s late career, a stunning meditation on faith from a man with nothing to lose.
For his entire career, Cohen has grappled with God, with his religious upbringing and his doubts and questions and longings as an adult. This album is a frank testament from an old man about to come face to face with whatever awaits him, and here he wrestles with faith like never before. The music is typically stripped down – pianos, organs, thumping bass, minimal drums, and Cohen’s low growl of a voice. He speaks this album more than sings it, his aging vocal cords thick and rumbling, the microphone close enough to pick up every whisper, every nuance. When he sings, as he does on the hymn “If I Didn’t Have Your Love,” his performance is compelling in its messiness, its imperfection, its raw honesty.
And in the same way, Cohen’s words this time are as brave and open as his voice. The album’s title is fitting – many of these are dark songs with powerful images, Cohen cutting right to the bone. In “Leaving the Table,” he sings of lost love, but equally of his own impending death: “I don’t need a reason for what I became, I’ve got these excuses, they’re tired and lame, I don’t need a pardon, there’s no one left to blame, I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game.” “Traveling Light” performs the same trick, over a subtle electronic blues and his trademark choral backing vocals. “I’m traveling light, it’s au revoir, my once so bright, my fallen star,” he sings. “I’m running late, they’ll close the bar, I used to play one mean guitar.”
And with death closing in, Cohen wages an internal battle with the stories of God and the afterlife, and whether he believes them. “Treaty” is about loss of faith, and is as direct as Cohen ever is: “I seen you change the water into wine, I seen you change it back to water too, I sit at your table every night, I try but I just don’t get high with you.” The chorus finds him admitting “I’m angry and I’m tired all the time,” and wishing for a more concrete agreement with God. “I’m so sorry for the ghost I made you be,” he sings. “Only one of us was real, and that was me.”
“It Seemed the Better Way” finds Cohen looking askance at the gospel, turning it over in his mind and trying to balance its message with the dusty reality of his life. “It seemed the better way when I first heard him speak, but now it’s much too late to turn the other cheek,” he says, admitting that “it sounded like the truth, but it’s not the truth today.” The song is chilling, giving us a crystal clear glance at Cohen’s inner monologue. And at its end, he keeps his true feelings inside: “I better hold my tongue, I better take my place, lift this glass of blood, try to say the grace.” It’s the most broken and painful beauty, and it catches me up short.
Nothing here is quite as powerful, though, as the album’s first and last songs. The title track opens things with a bleak pulse, and with Cohen contrasting himself with God: “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game, if you are the healer, I’m broken and lame, if thine is the glory, mine must be the shame, you want it darker, we kill the flame.” It’s stunning stuff, particularly the repeated Hebrew phrase “hineni hineni” (“here I am”), followed by Cohen’s “I’m ready, my lord.” This is the closest he has come to saying “I am about to die,” and the remainder of the song (and in truth, the album) dissects the questions he hopes to have answered when he does.
Closing track “Steer Your Way” is the most powerful thing here, particularly if it is Cohen’s final statement. He is speaking to himself throughout, steering past crumbling monuments to things he once believed, headed toward a last destination. “Steer your way through the ruins of the altar and the mall,” he sings, equating religion and commercialism. (He goes deeper in that direction in the chorus: “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make things cheap,” an amazing single-line excoriation of our economic wars.) “Steer your way through the pain that is far more real than you, that has smashed the cosmic model, that has blinded every view,” he sings, as strings sway beneath him. “And please don’t make me go there, though there be a God or not,” he pleads, knowing that the end is near. “Year by year, month by month, day by day, thought by thought.”
It’s utterly compelling. If you have followed Cohen through his journey, the cumulative impact of You Want It Darker is astonishing. He knows this may be his last turn around the sun, and like David Bowie at the beginning of this year, he has crafted what may be his final statement, a dusky and clear-eyed powerhouse of a record. Listening to this album is like eavesdropping on Cohen’s darkest thoughts, his most existential inner battles. If this is his last, he is leaving us with a masterpiece, thoughtful and painful and strangely beautiful. Cohen’s contemporary Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in literature a few weeks ago, and at the time I suggested Cohen’s name as a possible future candidate. You Want It Darker is not only a stunning possible capper to a long and poetic career, but further proof that if anyone deserves such an honor, it is Leonard Cohen.
May this gorgeous, difficult goodbye not be the final statement it appears. My life, and the world, can always use more Leonard Cohen.
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Well, I thoroughly failed to give that album a brief review, didn’t I? Next week, an epilogue to the October Project with a bunch of (I promise) short takes on new records. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.