At age 70, Leonard Cohen is long past any attempts to be either current or mainstream. In fact, he never tried. That said, the legendary bard’s new album Dear Heather is both a statement that will thrill long-time fans and an elegiac possible final chapter of a unique life’s work.
Vocally, the baritone that soothed a thousand souls is now long gone. In fact, the evidence is crystal clear in the 13th and final track – a live, 1985 version of the old nugget Tennessee Waltz that still shows the power of that vocal from two decades ago. Four of the 12 new songs have spoken word vocals, two others are the next thing to spoken word, one is simply a recited poem, and the other tracks heavily showcase Cohen’s female sidekick vocalists Anjani Thomas and Sharon Robinson.
That being said, the album is still a profound work of simple grace – his rootsiest effort in years. Oblivious to current trends, Cohen blissfully fills some songs with dated keyboards and sax fills, and inserts his own incongruous Jew’s harp licks in the midst of others.
The bliss seems to extend to Cohen’s entire craft as well. The man who turned literate depression into an art form fills this album with tender looks back at old friends, old lovers, and old mentors. He makes statements that are sometimes personal, such as Dear Heather, The Letters, and To A Teacher and sometimes also witty, as on Because Of, where he forthrightly notes “Because of a few songs wherein I spoke of their mysteries / Women have been exceptionally kind to my old age.”
The weighty and substantial political, ethical, and spiritual commentary of his 1992 opus The Future is more muted this time around. Even his rumination on 9/11 called On That Day simply asks “Did you go crazy / Or did you report / On that day they wounded New York.” The stark Jew’s harp that is his “break” simply adds a raw poignancy to a question that is as simple and basic as Cohen himself is becoming as he matures in grace to be a wizened sage for our time.
Neither interviews nor live performances are part of Cohen’s plan, as he has indicated that the album speaks for itself. It does, and his fans will gratefully listen.
Wilfred Langmaid is student advocate and lecturer in biology at the University of New Brunswick, and a priest in the diocese of Fredericton. He has been the regular music and popular culture columnist with the Anglican Journal since 1993; he now begins writing occasional music reviews for the Journal.