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What’s made 2016 a different order of shitty? Imbalance, hidden wars, and open ignorance are known knowns. Look back and you’ll find the same bastards in different hats, the same structures under old paint. Maybe it’s that the fear common to the twentieth century hasn’t been replaced; it’s merged with dread, fear’s distilled essence. What we have now is the Judas bullet of emotional defeat, a sense that we can no longer even predict the magnitude or method of our next predation, of what we are capable of doing to ourselves and to our neighbors. This is a good time to admit that, sometimes, the spirits in our art are stubbornly practical. In a year of medium, small, and large deaths, three artists gave us reliable guidance. David Bowie, Nick Cave, and Leonard Cohen faced death and found different versions of grace. Even if fear and dread have blanketed us, we can still hear these songs.
Bowie knew he was going, and kept going. A few weeks ago, we got the cast recording of Lazarus, the musical Bowie co-wrote, which started a run at the New York Theatre Workshop in December of 2015 that ended a week after his death in January of 2016. Hold it next to Blackstar: two bottles, two messages, written at roughly the same time. Lazarus let Bowie present himself in one of his favorite outfits — Thomas Newton, the protagonist of The Man Who Fell to Earth — without being present. (In 2004, long before the cancer came, Bowie retired from live performance after a heart attack.) The cast recording of Lazarus gives us a handsome playbill. Michael C. Hall animated bits of the catalog Bowie would never perform, including three songs from Bowie’s 2013 album, The Next Day. Hall and Sophia Caruso give “Heroes” a subdued glow that avoids any melodrama baked into the song. Hall is a measured stand-in for Bowie on “Where Are We Now?”; Michael Esper can project the Weimar sting of “Dirty Boys,” and lands well with “Valentine’s Day,” but then goes on to prove that Bowie’s Anguished Megaphone setting can’t be duplicated by simply singing louder.
The keepers are on the second disc, which contains Bowie’s studio versions of the four songs used in the musical, three of them new, recorded during the sessions for Blackstar. That album is a delirious, sensual thing. The songs re-routed to Lazarus are worth adding to the catalog, but they would have slowed down Blackstar, an album that gets in and out in forty-two minutes. “Killing a Little Time” is Bowie yelling into, and at, the void: “I’ve got a handful of songs to sing, to sting your soul, to fuck you over, this furious reign.” His is a magnificent holler here, stranded between Donny McCaslin’s elegant horn charts and superfluous, chopsy clatter from drummer Mark Guiliana and guitarist Mike Monder. “No Plan” and “When I Met You” make better use of the Blackstar band and place him on two sides of the abyss. The “you” he meets down here on Earth shows him “God’s truth,” but that place with no plans also has no music and no traffic, so you guess where that is. Lazarus seems to have been designed as Bowie’s final lap, with stops for beloved songs and planting a few white crosses along the road.
With Blackstar, the role of death flips. Partly created during periods of remission, this isn’t an album you need to trick yourself into believing for the need of honoring someone you loved. Bowie’s last choice was to indulge passions of the moment. He is at play on Blackstar, opening with a nine-minute bob-and-weave that sent everybody off to figure out if Bowie really did believe in Aleister Crowley while it spun out variants on a boast: “You’re a flash in the pan/I’m not a Marvel star/I’m the great, I am/I’m a blackstar.” On Earth, he’s floating above us, daring us to battle him. And if he’d accepted the passage at that point, then he was setting up a radio show. The signal is still strong; it seems impolite to look for the station.
Nick Cave didn’t know anyone was going. The lyrics for the latest Bad Seeds album, The Skeleton Tree, were completed before Arthur, one of his twin sons, fell to his death off a cliff in Brighton at the age of fifteen on July 14, 2015. The recording, though, wasn’t finished, so the performance reflects what the words can’t.
Cave has sung for years about murder and biblical torment and characters who hurt one another just for the philosophical kick. It’s a nasty congruence that Cave’s lyrics set him up to sing about a death he knew nothing of until it was time to record. Something of a ham — possibly down to thinking Elvis Presley is as biblical as anything else — Cave is a diminished singer on The Skeleton Tree, and the music doesn’t dare interrupt him. Albums, especially for Cave, are rarely so unified. This is a forty-minute sigh, unbroken and broken. It loops easily, eventually letting the words float up. The opening lyrics are the easiest to tie back to the unspeakable — “You fell from the sky” — even when we know they were written about something else. Others, though, ring on longer: “You believe in God, but you get no special dispensation for this belief now.”
If anyone’s gotten a special dispensation, it’s Leonard Cohen. He keeps telling us he’s going, but he never does. We are grateful for his inaccuracy, and surprised by how wrong he was. Since his return from retirement, he’s made three full albums about shuffling off this mortal coil — Old Ideas, Popular Problems, and the newest, You Want It Darker — toured the world, and released two live albums. We wouldn’t even have known this was possible if his manager, Kelley Lynch, hadn’t tapped Cohen’s account for 5 million dollars over the course of a decade and a half. This forced Cohen back on the road in 2008 for the first time in fifteen years, which didn’t seem to bother him more than any of his other endings. A model of good coping mechanisms.
Cohen’s return was not just a gift for those who saw him on tour — the resulting live albums removed the glaze of synth that dampened his great songs of the 1990s. Cohen’s strengths recall recent conversations about the nature of the lyric and literature. Cohen started on the page and has been sneaking recitation into song from the jump. If music as lit was already a boring discussion, it’s fine. Cohen never asked anyone to repeat the question.
His voice losing range and timbre is a boon because the band’s got no chance now but to keep it down so we can hear the man. And words are Cohen’s pull, especially on “Darker,” plus a lifelong equanimity that is unusual for poets and singers both. “Treaty” is sepulchral, even by Cohen’s funeral-director standards. The pizzicato string figure behind the church piano repeats less like a rhythm and more like the rock of a congregant. If you want “Treaty” to be about love, the song is written as such, but you already know the feeling, if you have been awake this year: “I’m angry and I’m tired all the time, I wish there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.”
Though Cohen loves the tragicomic mode, he occasionally drops the hammer and lets his knowledge of scripture, official and otherwise, inform his darkness. “Steer Your Way,” the last full song on the album, shows us the way of Cohen’s gentleness with the perfidy around him: forgiveness, first of the self. The backing music is a coded joke, a string quartet trading time with a tiny country-fiddle motif. And when Cohen trawls through sin, and its wages, he’s not so bad with meter and rhyme: “They whisper still, the injured stones, the blunted mountains weep. As he died to make men holy, let us die to make things cheap, and say the Mea Culpa, which you’ve probably forgot.” Charming fellow, but he sees himself, and us. How your year, and the rest, ends is in that mea culpa.