“But wait — there’s more!” can be a good news/bad news thing when it comes to posthumous album releases. No one, or almost no one, likes the idea of scraps from a late artist’s cutting room floor slowly being dribbled out over time, as happened with Tupac Shakur, who somehow released more studio albums in death than life. And then, with singers who die less suddenly, there is the ideal — and usually myth — of intentionally leaving a musical last will and testament. David Bowie was hailed by some for somehow being brilliant enough to synchronize his death with the release of “Blackstar.” If it subsequently turned out he didn’t necessarily know he was approaching death’s door when he was making the album, and told friends he wanted to record another, not every fan wanted to hear that; there was succor to be found in believing he’d deliberately given the world a lovely parting gift.
And so the Leonard Cohen faithful may approach “Thanks for the Dance” with some trepidation, with the new release standing as a postscript to a career that didn’t necessarily call for an epilogue when it already had a beautiful final chapter in “You Want It Darker,” the album he released just prior to his death in 2016. Evidence that “Darker” wasn’t supposed to come with an on-screen “Finis” at the end was strong: At a Q&A just weeks before he passed, Cohen said he’d only been “exaggerating” when he’d earlier declared a readiness to die, that he “intend(ed) to live forever” (or at least “stick around until 120”), and that he had “hope that perhaps that another record of songs also might emerge. But one never knows.” Maybe he was just saying that because he’d become convinced it was better not to sell “Darker” as a Stage 4 album — but how many artists do lose the urge to create, even in their last days? Cohen seemed to mean it enough to end the session quoting the lyrics of a new song he’d just written, “Listen to the Hummingbird.” Would it be on his next album? “God willing,” he said.
“If it be your will,” indeed — even if it’s Cohen’s producer son, Adam, giving God a significant assist. He’s said his father asked him to take vocal recordings made during or after the “Darker” sessions and bring them to fruition. The good news is that, whatever sleight of hand may have been involved in making the collaboration from across the great divide come off as organic, “Thanks for the Dance” passes the critical test of making you believe that, released in his lifetime, you’d readily accept it as the next Cohen album in a run of 15 good-to-great ones, without any “not bad for a decedent” handicapping. The only slight tip-offs that this didn’t come about the normal way are in the record’s relative brevity — nine songs in a brisk 30 minutes — and that it’s even a little more spoken-word than usual, owing to the fact that tunes were not as formed as lyrics at the time. But this is the slightest of differences, given that our man has long been 99 parts Ken Nordine to one part Caruso in his latter-day recitations. Just as at any point since he went full sub-baritone as a reliable narrator, Cohen sounds like the voice of God, even as he’s moments from going to meet him.
Even though Adam Cohen brought in a few celebrity guests like Daniel Lanois, Beck and the National’s Bryce Dessner to contribute to the playing or backup vocals, you won’t notice them — except perhaps for old cohort Jennifer Warnes, who, along with Feist, recognizably helps sing Cohen home at the end of the lilting, waltz-time title track. It’s enough of a piece with the last album that you could confer sequel status on it. One area of continuity with its predecessor is the dominance of acoustic guitar, which helps provide a kind of bookend to the folkier work Cohen was doing in the ‘60s, before he went all synth-crazy in his mid-period — although the Spanish guitar flavor that Javier Mas brings to about half the tracks is a long way from “Suzanne.”
That guitar is most pronounced in the erotic reverie “The Night of Santiago,” with its south-of-the-border flare. Cohen recalls an affair with a mixture of enthusiasm and rue in a song that begins, wryly, “She said she was a maiden / That wasn’t what I heard” and ends with him recounting a woman’s many lies, only to empathetically tell the listener, “You were born to judge the world / Forgive me but I wasn’t.” That combination of lacerating insight and gentle clemency permeates the album. Cohen is a sort of optimistic pessimist: The world, he says, is “torn where there’s beauty, it’s torn where there’s death / It’s torn where there’s mercy but torn somewhat less.”
Cohen’s sense of deadpan comedy hardly abandoned him at the end: “I was selling holy trinkets / I was dressing kind of sharp / Had a pussy in the kitchen / And a panther in the yard,” he sings in “Happens to the Heart,” the song here likeliest to be elevated to his pantheon of classics. As for the impending inevitable: “It failed, my little fire / But it’s bright, the dying spark.” It might be wrong to regard the album entirely as a self-eulogizing work, but it’s fairly unmistakable where Cohen is going with this — to his end — when he tells us that he’s “settling at last / Accounts of the soul / This for the trash / That paid in full.” “Thanks for the Dance” isn’t really so much a last will and testament, then, as a hell of a heaven-bound balance sheet.
“Thanks for the Dance”
Producer: Adam Cohen. Co-producer: Patrick Leonard. Songwriters: Leonard Cohen, Adam Cohen, Patrick Leonard, Aniani Thomas, Sharon Robinson.