Imagine, for just one perfect moment, that you are Leonard Cohen. After an inconvenient brush with financial ruin, you are required to emerge from a decades-long retreat—some of it spent in the austere auspices of the Mount Baldy Zen Center outside of Los Angeles—and go on tour. You retake the stage reluctantly but soon seem to discover within yourself a facility for performance that has eluded you for four decades. Maybe it’s because you’ve finally come to terms with the act of standing before hordes of strangers each night and sharing intimate poems meant for individual women with names like Suzanne or Marianne. Now your voice is deeper and your spirit calmer, having finally completed, as you had so eloquently put it, your manual for living with defeat. It’s a line from a song, of course, and it’s a very fine one. You include it on your 2012 release, Old Ideas, your first album in nearly a decade. It climbs nimbly up the American charts and stops at No. 3, an overwhelming 60 spots above your career’s best-performing record to date, which was released in 1969. In other words, you’re almost 80, and you are more celebrated and comfortable, perhaps, than you’ve ever been in your life. Here’s the question: What now?
It’s a metaphysical problem, really, or even nearly a Zen koan: The stories that we tell ourselves are always about becoming, never about being. We follow our heroes as they struggle and as they suffer and as they triumph, but once they’ve slipped into a life of small joys, we close the book on them. Even our most introspective artists do the same: Burden them with success, and it’s almost guaranteed that their next project will feel strangely hollow. How much rage, after all, could a content and well-compensated Eminem really produce? How many of Kurt Cobain’s existential anxieties could survive his elevation to the rock pantheon? If you’re Leonard Cohen, then, chances are that you, too, are at risk of ending your period of grace with an album that fizzles when it ought to shine.