Many of us can link a certain album to pivotal moments in our lives. Whether it’s the first record you bought with your own money, the chord you first learnt to play on guitar, the song that soundtracked your first kiss, the album that got you those awkward and painful pubescent years or the one that set off light bulbs in your brain and inspired you to take a big leap of faith into the unknown – music is often the catalyst for change in our lives and can even help shape who we become.
In this Love Letter To A Record series, Music Feeds asks artists to reflect on their relationship with music and share with us stories about the effect music has had on their lives.
Anita Lester – Leonard Cohen, You Want it Darker (2016)
Dear ‘You Want it Darker’,
You changed my life.
To speak about the impact this record has had on me can only be prefaced with the acknowledgment of the journey it has taken me on in my own world. I am currently a person who is tied to the name Leonard Cohen. In 2016 I covered the title track from the aforementioned record You Want it Darker on my roof in London. I posted it online, it went mini-viral and I received recognition from Leonard, his closest people and his social media. He died a month or so later.
This lightning strike took me around the world, where I met many fans and friends of his, was given the blessing to perform his music at my show ‘Ladies Who Sing Leonard’ and the cover was also featured on film and television, including The Walking Dead, which has gifted me a whole new world of weird and wonderful fans.
Rabbi Leonard Cohen had anointed me with his knowing wink, from beyond the stars. To be honest, there are records I love of his more – Songs of Love and Hate, Songs From a Room, The Future, Songs of Leonard Cohen. I truly consider him to be the greatest lyricist of all time, with songs that move you deeply, so it’s hard.
But we are nothing but our context and You Want it Darker spoke to my own world at the right moment, like a great body of music can only do.
The opening track – the title track – begins with a choir to the heavens. It feels religious, which many of his more solemn and famous songs actually are at their core. He speaks, he doesn’t sing, and recites what can only be described as his interpretation of the Jewish mourner’s prayer. The song then rings out with a single word “Hineni, Hineni”. In Hebrew this means “I am here” or “here I am”.
I cried when I heard this for the first time. I knew the song immediately and for some reason it painted a portrait of my flawed and departed father, who I believe knew on some level, he was to have a short life.
I am not religious but I understand the need for a god. I feel his God, like mine, came in many forms – sometimes in prayer, sometimes in sex, sometimes in wine and sun, sometimes in beauty. In this song, I felt him calling out for his father too – someone who dealt his cards – and he seemed calm and resigned to it.
This record is all about fate and something greater than ourselves.
It continues into ‘Treaty’, in which Cohen speaks about a lover who he can’t hold beyond death. He speaks to God about the fact he is frustrated that something can hold so much power yet still divine so much suffering.
‘On the Level’ is a breath after the previous two. Perhaps Leonard is talking to his son or himself as a younger man, to just ‘let it go’ and ‘enjoy the ride’. I like the humour and placement of this song, as he’s just annihilated his listeners but immediately follows up with the sentiment of: don’t take it so seriously.
Oh but wait. Because just as Leonard reminds you that we are nothing but skin and bone and blood, he pronounces he’s ‘Leaving the Table’…which is exactly as it proclaims.
This song clearly articulates the content and rhythm of this album – speaking to the relative pain of something as small as a heartbreak and as big as the Holocaust. He’s leaving his lover’s table, but he’s also leaving the banquet of life.
‘If I Didn’t Have Your Love’ is the most beautiful dedication to a lover. It uses one of my own favourite cosmic metaphors of the sun, moon and stars, to show that nothing would shine without the feelings of being able to give and receive that one love that swallows you completely.
‘Travelling Light’ was another that caught me a little off-guard. I mentioned before he indirectly speaks to the plight of his people during WWII, and though I feel this song echoes the sentiments of ‘Leaving the Table’, I think it also is melodically, melancholically, honouring those who left this world with no notice, no possessions, other than those connections and memories they made.
Additionally, oud and violin are such deeply cutting instruments for many Jewish people, so having those elements is another visceral nod. And if you weren’t sure we are in a holy home ‘It Seemed a Better Way’ welcomes back that choir (which by the way are Cantors from a Synagogue in Montreal). He is no longer talking to a lover. He is speaking to himself in the grave. He is speaking to God. This song is a prayer so deep, you hear his voice shake and crack. You hear him truly.
It is no secret that Leonard Cohen is not particularly easy listening, but rather an experience. This album encapsulates that.
‘Steer Your Way’, I can’t say for certain but seems as though he is singing from the perspective of his ghost rising up above the world he once knew and loved. He smiles at the women, land, pain, memories, days, thoughts, years, and prayers, that he leaves behind. It has the same colours as David Bowie’s Blackstar – that knowing penetrates – that warmth and comfort in accepting that it is the legacy of every living thing to die and ascend, but instead of seeing it through fear, he views it through light.
Yet another reason, he is my Rabbi.
And to finish, a reprise – no need to say much more, but to honour his love and life through his boat of music and lyric.
I could only be so lucky to share his sails.
There is much to say about Leonard Cohen’s final album before his death. It is devastating and inspiring and profoundly him.
As a lover of his work, but also an artist who is constantly searching for my own voice, I feel part of his existential crisis was that he most probably wanted to say more – wanted to keep adventuring.
For those who aren’t sure of Leonard, but who love ‘Hallelujah’, or ‘Suzanne’, all his work is like that – You just have to give it time and space and be okay with facing the darkness. It may actually bring you closer to yourself.
To finish, a line from his posthumous album – another offering, but from the mind of his son Adam. This work musically and lyrically is a masterpiece. Though cheeky to include, this line is so big so I simply must, as it says so little and so very much. From ‘Happens to the Heart’ of the album Thanks for the Dance:
I was selling holy trinkets, I was dressing kind of sharp
I let pussy in the kitchen and a panther in the yard
In the prison of the gifted I was friendly with the guards
So I never had to witness what happens to the heart.
Anita Lester is a Melbourne-based multidisciplinary artist. Recently, she unveiled new single ‘Sun and Moon and Stars’ – a song written in the midst of 2020, recorded to tape and produced by fellow Australian troubadours Husky (Husky Gawenda, Gideon Preiss and Jules Pascoe).
“It’s been a long journey for me in this world of music and I’ve always been told that when you hit 35 it’s kind of all over,” says Anita of the single. “When the world silenced and I was left with what was important, I realised there is no limitation, except for the one that you create. I’m attempting to normalise making art outside of the boundaries of a very conservative industry and showing that with growth, the best art is made.”
Lester will play a single launch show this August at Melbourne’s Chapel Off Chapel. In the meantime, you can watch the clip here.