Does Cohen toy with mere mortals?

Published March 1, 2002

THE COMMERCIAL press does not know what to do with Leonard Cohen. He was always the proverbial square peg in a round hole, and his difficult, enigmatic craft is even more outside the commercial mainstream today. He spent much of the 1990s in a Zen retreat centre in California. At age 67, he delivered, in late 2001, his first new album in nine years, and only his fourth studio effort in 22 years. Mr. Cohen literally came down from the mountain with some 250 new poems. He has chosen 10 for the unassumingly entitled Ten New Songs. The result will not win any new fans, but old fans who give a close listen will be enlivened.[pullquote]Mr. Cohen has collaborated with Sharon Robertson before, but she gets double billing on this album. Her plain but soulful voice is in counterpoint with Mr. Cohen’s gravelly but resonant rasp on each cut, and she contributes extensively on the melodies.The melodies will be a sore point with some. Mr. Cohen became enamoured with synths in the early 80s, and this is the third consecutive album to feature them heavily. However, this time they dominate the soundscape like never before, and there is a dated feel to the sound. In other words, Mr. Cohen seems to be using the same machine with the same electro-pop settings as he did 20 years ago. Mr. Cohen’s craft is most fairly assessed as poems set to music; the former is the key to the art, and the latter is almost incidental. His themes are ones expressed through his life’s work: the intermingling of erotic love and the sacred quest. The overall idea is that love is something to be savoured, but it is both elusive and transitory. He is sometimes witty (“I fought against the bottle, but I had to do it drunk”, he quips in That Don’t Make It Junk), but every metaphor, every couplet, every rhyme, and every single word is carefully and expertly chosen. One often gets the idea that Mr. Cohen is toying with mere mortals on the one hand but, on the other hand, is on the outside looking in at the average Joe and Jane. He returns to the image of being “back on Boogie Street” in a pair of numbers (A Thousand Kisses Deep and Boogie Street), but his solitude is clear in the song which is the album’s best bet for the single/video market, the opening track In My Secret Life. Even more so than its immediate predecessors The Future (1992) and I’m Your Man (1988), this album takes a few listens to win one over. However, its profound grace grabs the fan in due course, and one is hard pressed to identify a single weak track. That being said, a few highlights do emerge. Alexandra Leaving is a strong an entry in the love hymn motif as Mr. Cohen has ever offered, and the love ode You Have Loved Enough and the reflection on aging By The Rivers Dark are two other standouts. Since Mr. Cohen is advancing in years and has been anything but prolific of late, it is possible that Ten New Songs could be his final studio album. If that is the case, the closing track The Land Of Plenty serves as a powerful benediction by one of the past century’s true sages: Don’t really know who sent me To raise my voice and say: May the lights in The Land of Plenty Shine on the truth some day. I don’t know why I come here, Knowing as I do, What you really think of me, What I really think of you. For the millions in a prison, That wealth has set apart – For the Christ who has not risen, From the caverns of the heart – To which all of Leonard Cohen’s fans echo “Amen; so may it be.” Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain of the University of New Brunswick and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.


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