Marking a return to the bald titling of his early work, "Ten New Songs" does indeed contain ten new Leonard Cohen songs, the first of the breed since his last studio long-player, "The Future", now nine years old. Little has changed in Cohen's sound world, apart from the eradication of the occasional rumbustious trotting tempo: "Ten New Songs" moves at a more leisurely gait, befitting an artist in his 67th year. Once again co-author, co-vocalist and producer Sharon Robinson provides an immaculately programmed backdrop that might have the luddite in you wishing for the sound of real drums, wires and ivories, but if it's alright for Leonard it seems churlish to complain. The voice is still in fine, resonant form, dropping phrases like rumbling depth charges, and the songs seem as painstakingly crafted as ever. The lyrics might still be inscrutably personal - the only song Id even attempt to faultily decode is "Boogie Street", which sounds like it could be a kindred spirit to Donald Fagen's "The Nightly" with its tale of an unlucky lover drowning his sorrows in jazz, which naturally means it's anything but - and the melodies a mite too refined to really snag in the mind, but nevertheless "Ten New Songs" sounds a staggeringly mature work, in an entirely complimentary sense. It might not posses the vigour of the last efforts by Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, to randomly pick two near-contemporaries, but it would be taxing to suggest any Cohen album that does. More boardroom than bedsit, but no sell-out, either. And extra points for Columbia's excellent vinyl pressing, which proves that they can make it if they try.
LEONARD COHEN Dear Heather (Columbia)
Following 2001s Ten New Songs with almost unseemly haste, on Dear Heather rocks hippest septuagenarian corrupts MOR-perfect muzak backgrounds all synths n sax n backing singers with his seismic whisper. Thats not meant to sound derogatory, because as a delivery vehicle for his parched narratives the music more than serves its function, and remains one of the most distinctive sounds youre likely to encounter. Slow, exquisite and cultured, its like an alien being in the contemporary sonic firmament. Even if the formula remains the same, Dear Heather appears a more idiosyncratic, fragmentary work than Ten New Songs, full of ideas presented in their rawest forms rather than immaculately airbrushed into verse chorus verse structures.
One of the albums prominent themes appears to be the authors own real or imagined declining libido, introduced by opener Well Go No More A Roving, co-written with 19th century hellion Lord Byron. Because Of (Because of a few songs/Wherein I spoke of their mystery/Women have been exceptionally kind to my old age) finds the women who visit his chamber tucking him snugly into bed rather than engaging in anything more physical. On the title track, a farground calliope synth sound and voice box processing mock the afflicted narrator as hes reduced to spelling out his desires one letter at a time.
Another significant subject is covered in the two-part response to the events of 9/11. The gentle, measured On That Day, anchored by Cohens own twangling Jews harp, sounds like a distant cousin of Dylans Disease Of Conceit. Its immediately followed by Villanelle For Our Time, in which Cohen recites the titular work by poet and law professor Frank Scott. Written at the height of the Second World War, the relevance of lines such as This is the faith from which we start/Men shall know commonwealth again/From bitter searching of the heart has scarcely declined during the intervening decades.
Tinkering with form and formula, the overlapping monologues of Morning Glory suggest The Velvet Undergrounds The Murder Mystery gone supper jazz. The album closes with a cover of Tennessee Waltz taped at the 1985 Montreux Jazz Festival. What might seem a jarringly arbitrary selection makes perfect sense in practice, this version demonstrating the same rich, luxuriant upholstery that covers the rest of the album. Its a fitting end to an album thats equal parts mystery and majesty.
LEONARD COHEN Songs From A Room (Columbia/Legacy)
In which second album syndrome strikes the poet and monk. Despite opening with the for-the-ages Bird On A Wire, whose first lines Kris Kristofferson has bagged for his epitaph, Songs From A Room is not a satisfying listen. Stoic and sparse as its title implies, Cohen deliberately rejected the lusher, if hardly elaborate, orchestrations of his debut, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, but instead of imbuing these underwritten songs with gravitas it reveals them as the flimsy constructs they all too often are. Plus theres that infernal Jews harp over everything, which soon loses its limited novelty appeal.
There are moments, though, icy as they are. Story Of Isaac rewires the Old Testament myth as a protest against the Vietnam war. The Partisan is a bilingual reading of a poem by Emmanuel DAstier, a member of the French resistance; the raging fury beating behind its blank fašade is typical of artefacts of the era, for example Jean-Pierre Melvilles film LArmee des ombres. The cheery theme is continued in Seems So Long Ago, Nancy, a forensic examination of a society suicide, and The Butcher, a matter-of-fact account of self-destruction that belies its rather utilitarian music, lyrics and delivery by revealing more layers of meaning the longer its studied.
Bonus bits on this Legacy reissue include the hardback book packaging common to this series of Cohen remasters, printed lyrics, an Anthony DeCurtis essay, sundry archive photographs and promo hoopla, and two bonus early versions of Bird On The Wire and You Know Who I Am, produced by David Crosby. None of which does much to perk up a rather dry and unrewarding listen.
LEONARD COHEN Songs Of Love And Hate (Columbia/Legacy)
Songs Of Love And Hate is blessed, if that's the right word, with more elaborate production values than either of Cohen's previous albums. Paul Buckmaster's weighty string arrangements make these songs, hardly among the sprightliest in the Cohen canon to begin with, even darker and more brooding, at times staggering under the weight of all their gravitas. Dense both lyrically and musically, only one of the original album's eight tracks clocks in under five minutes. The contents are somewhat at odds with the cover picture of the smiling, stubbly artist; more telling is the booklet photo of a glowering, besuited Cohen (looking oddly like Lou Reed) toting his guitar and luggage through an airport whilst a bearded, beshaded member of the hip community looks on.
Despite being almost stereotypically lumbered with every negative quality his detractors seize upon, Songs Of Love And Hate is one of Cohen's most satisfying albums, with maybe only his debut, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, running it close in my opinion. Dress Rehearsal Rag might be its unorthodox peak, a bitter, vindictive portrayal of a suicidal, unemployed actor (or, after its final line obfuscation, perhaps a portrayal of a bitter, vindictive portrayal of a suicidal, unemployed actor). The caustic, mordant humour displayed by Diamonds In The Mine could pass for an early Eno lyric. Arguably the album's most famous track, Famous Blue Raincoat lent its title to Jennifer Warnes' collection of Cohen covers, a sparsely arranged trawl through a bizarre love triangle's psychological wreckage.
This shiny new reissue of Songs Of Love And Hate is subtly but usefully augmented. Packaged as a CD-sized hardback book, there's a brief Anthony DeCurtis essay, a bunch of pictures and printed lyrics that I don't remember seeing on an early vinyl pressing, and, ambassador you are spoiling us a bonus track! Salvaged from the Songs From A Room sessions, an early Dress Rehearsal Rag is stymied by the oppressive percussion that Cohen was adamant would play no part in Songs Of Love And Hate - I mean, really, what are you supposed to do, dance to it? - and he hasn't yet found the song's final voice, his vocals almost matter-of-fact compared to the bile spilled over the released version.
LEONARD COHEN Manchester Opera House 17, 18, 19 & 20 June 2008
Or, the Leonard Wants A Bungalow tour. Having had his retirement fund and publishing rights ransacked by a former manager, allegedly leaving him with just $150,000, it was clear from its announcement that the motivation behind Leonard Cohen’s first tour in 15 years wasn’t entirely musical. Nevertheless, a 32-date, three month world tour looked like a punishing schedule for a reluctant 73-year-old performer, especially given how frail his voice had sounded on his last studio album, 2004’s “Dear Heather”. Inevitably, there’d be a lot of love and goodwill in the room irrespective of the quality of his performance, but would the result be a shameful, voyeuristic bookend to an often astonishing forty year musical career?
First, a word about the venue. Due to the vertiginous design of the Opera House, for two of the four shows I was up in the nosebleed seats, whose steeply raked access steps and barely barriered balconies seemed to predate petty trivialities like heath and safety regulations. However, apart from the odd dizzy spell, it wasn’t an issue: you’d get a great view of Leonard from practically anywhere in the venue, and when he tipped his hat (as he did often during the shows; sometimes I half expected him to pass it around the audience) it almost felt like he was singling me out personally. The acoustics were fabulous (as they’d have to be in a venue designed in the early days of amplification) and the anaemic-looking PA system suggested, correctly as it turned out, that my earplugs could rest easy. Every word, every self-deprecating aside, could be heard with pindrop clarity.
And Leonard…well, he’s gathered a subtle and sensuous nonet around him, not dissimilar in configuration to Van Morrison’s touring band, and he’s rightly generous in highlighting their artistry during the shows. They warmed up the somewhat synthetic sound I remember from “The Future” (although I should point out that I haven’t heard that album in 15 years) and fleshed out the skeletal arrangements of Cohen’s bedsit balladeer years. Perhaps the greatest surprise of these shows was Leonard’s singing voice, in that he still has one! I was expecting, and would have accepted, an evening of Lou Reed-style recitation, but although his weathered instrument might be limited in frequency range it’s still in possession of a dynamic wallop.
And the setlist? Well, really, what do you want to hear? Bar a half-hour interval and some spirited bounding offstage and back he performed for close to three hours, playing between 24 and 26 songs each night. “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” was eye-moistening, massaged into a gentle country-rock gait. Javier Mas’ long flamenco solo spot morphed into a magnificent “Who By Fire”, notable for musical director Roscoe Beck’s rich, rattling string bass work. “Hallelujah” was practically a religious experience, “If It Be Your Will”, performed by the (“sublime”, as Leonard frequently, if needlessly, reminded us) Webb Sisters, shivered with celestial beauty. Opening the second set with the warning, apropos a Technics keyboard that had been ushered on stage during the interval, “You probably haven’t seen one of these before…it plays by itself”, Leonard unleashed “Tower Of Song” with a single button press, predictably raising widespread hilarity both with the line “I was born with the gift of a golden voice” and his avant-savant solo spot. The sardonic disco of “First We Take Manhattan” got the stalls up and clapping, yet two lines in we were all sitting down and reverentially silent again under its insidious anaesthetising influence. “Democracy” was pertinently poignant (“Democracy is coming to the USA”), and a recitation of “A Thousand Kisses Deep” close to heartbreaking – has so much quaking emotion been wrested from an unwavering monotone delivery before now? And throughout the band coddled and cosseted each song, gently supporting and flavouring them with their solos like a honey-coated Steely Dan. What I noticed over successive nights was the intricacy of the arrangements: the precise layering of the backing vocals, the tiny chiming cymbal sounds, the kind of filigree detailing that would normally be swamped in the sonic tsunami in less acoustically considered circumstances. I found it particularly amusing at all the effort that must be expended in hauling a gong around the world, to deploy it only once, and semi-audibly at that, at the close of “The Gypsy’s Wife”.
In conclusion then, a staggering series of concerts. I can only hope that there’ll be a DVD or album release from this tour, because performances of this quality really must be preserved for the ages. And, perhaps ironically in the light of how brilliant these shows were, hopefully they’ve achieved their unspoken objective and Leonard won’t have to do it all over again.