‘Thanks for the Dance’: A Parting Gift From Leonard Cohen

This month would have brought with it ‘prophet’ Leonard Cohen’s 86th birthday. The musician may have left the world in 2016. but his aura is immortal – over the stretch of an iconic career of over five decades, his oeuvre has traversed the terrains of unspoken desolation, vulnerability, love, war, alienation, politics, unfettered sexuality, grappling with loss and death, his lyricality and music transcending mortality.

We have held his hand and walked through the gates of expression, voices, and mumbles of desperation. We have fallen in love with him, watching him embrace his muses through Marianne’s melancholy, watching ‘Suzanne‘ paint pictures in the void between them, been voyeurs to love triangles in the cold dark streets of New York. Crooning to the rhythm of ‘Hallelujah‘, we have seen sexuality and desire seamlessly consummate with divinity and wisdom.

The ageless prophet has made us feel it all.

Across his discography, from his debut album ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’ (1967) till the last one preceding his death in 2016, ‘You Want it Darker’, his lyrical poetry, infused with complex emotions, kept evolving and taking new forms over the decades. However, 2019 gifted us a posthumous album, which was initially dubbed as a stretched track extension of the last album.

But ‘Thanks for the Dance’ took us on a very familiar journey through the words of the poet, only deeper, more meditative and darker, sparsely musical and acoustic. Here’s why ‘Thanks for the Dance’ became something more unexpectedly special and emotional, each line bleeding significant reality.

I was always working steady
But I never called it art
I got my shit together
Meeting Christ and reading Marx

The album opens with these fours lines on the opening track ‘Happens to the Heart’. The intro gives way to the reverent baritone reciting lines which resonate through memories of him growing, learning, and unlearning experiences of guilt and repentance. Cohen wanders back to the days of yore and of glory and traverses back tracing his heart’s journey through the hallowed corridors of a society reeking of napalm and guilt.

The lines on the next track, ‘Moving On’, push us into a void of estrangement and desolation. Speaking of the Cohen-esque pain and freckles of moving past – of leaving behind a person entwined with torn memories of fleeting, the octogenarian prophet in sad and deep reminiscence, progresses onto the next tracks, drifting back to his exotic youthful encounters, wanting to make us fall in love all over again, especially on ‘The Night of Santiago’.

The following eponymous track, ‘Thanks for the Dance’, is a conversational dreamy exchange where the voice hits differently in submission and the magic of the night against the swing of the sweet choric voices in unison. This immediately paints a blurry picture of a quaint village party tinged with the sober sweet yellow lights, tiddly with some wine, swaying to the delightful music being played.

It’s torn where you’re dancing, it’s torn everywhere
It’s torn on the right and it’s torn on the left
It’s torn in the centre which few can accept

The mood swiftly morphs into a sweet reprieve, of a sombre account relapsing into estrangement and desolation, of collecting broken pieces of memories and touch on ‘It’s Torn’, against a soulful musical arrangement ensconcing us in a sad remembrance of what is loved and lost.

I move with the leaves
I shine with the chrome
I’m almost alive
I’m almost at home

‘The Goal’ brings us to an odd realisation and inevitable acceptance of what a physically worn-down Cohen recites, a sagacious confession of what humanity seeks, and where he stands now, closer to the arching horizon. The next two tracks, ‘Puppets’ and ‘The Hills’, magnify and balance his prophetic angst at past wars, fascist torture and ignorance on the former, balanced by a blissful ode to longing, of dystopia and pills and the healing power of hopeful love while he croons on his death bed, in the latter.

Listen to the hummingbird
Whose wings you cannot see
Listen to the hummingbird
Don’t listen to me.

As we peacefully slip onto the last track of what remains immortalised as perhaps one of the greatest discographies every listed, Cohen peacefully draws to an end with these four lines on ‘Listen to the Hummingbird’ – a ceaseless pronouncement by a prophet who knows his sweet release from mortal realm is not very far.

As the harmonic music fades into silence, it feels like a bittersweet parting as the poet came back for the last time to take us on a discordant yet timeless detour from the tedium of life into a condensed sweet reminiscence of a prophet who never turned old.

This album has been critically shrouded, often reduced to a compilation of discarded tracks, but in all its doddering glory, he manages to weave an immersive fabric of complex and overlapping emotions. ‘Thanks for the Dance’ brings back a Cohen deeper than ever, a sage foretelling and retelling congruent personal experiences. Outside criticality, it’s a journey we would soulfully undertake, stories we would humbly be innocent voyeurs to.

Agnidev Banerjee is an undergrad student studying English Literature at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. He is interested in music, film, sports and inertia. 

Featured image credit: Reuters