Sunday, November 13, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 937: Leonard Cohen

Given the circumstances, choosing this next album seemed the only thing I could do. I’m going to wax a bit poetic now about my relationship (from afar) with Leonard Cohen, so if you’d rather just read the review, scroll down to the picture of the album cover.

Leonard Cohen has been a fixture in my life for a very long time, and he’ll continue to be despite the fact the he’s gone.

I first discovered Leonard Cohen in Grade 11, digging through the library shelves with my high school friends. We used to hang out in the library during our free period and one of us found his poetry books “The Spice Box of Earth,” “Flowers for Hitler” and “The Energy of Slaves”. We spent the next few days giggling at all the sexual references. Later his words would seep into me in a more serious way. At 16 I had no idea Cohen even made music, but I knew his words mattered to me, and that poetry was something I was going to delve into with a deeper passion than had existed before.

When I went away to university in 1988 I chose English Literature as my major, and around the same time discovered that Cohen also made music. I bought “I’m Your Man,” “Various Positions” and “Songs” on tape and played the hell out of them. If they’d let me into grad school I was going to do my thesis on Cohen. Their loss.

Then I found “Recent Songs” and “Death of a Ladies Man” but only on CD. Back then my ghetto blaster only played tapes, but I bought both albums anyway and asked a friend to tape them for me. Before he had the chance, my ghetto blaster died and I spent the last of my food money buying one that could play CDs. Yes, the entire music collection that makes up the CD Odyssey began with Leonard Cohen.

Cohen has been a guiding light for me through good and bad times. When I lost my first love he gave a voice to my misery in the darkness. When I met Sheila I made her a Cohen mixed tape. “Dance Me To the End of Love” became our song and twenty years later, it still is.

I’ve seen Cohen in concert four times, twice recently and twice on “The Future” tour back in 1993. I’m even one of the people cheering on the live rendition of Suzanne at the Orpheum in Vancouver on the live album.

Earlier this week, I was quoting from “Closing Time” to a friend (I quote Cohen often). I had no idea that 24 hours later would be closing time for Cohen.

So thanks and goodbye, Leonard. They’ve finally moved you to a tower so far down the track that I can’t reach you anymore. But I want you to know that your wisdom, your self-effacing sense of humour and your deep insights into the human soul remain with me, and have helped shape the better parts of who I am.

Disc 937 is….You Want It Darker
Artist: Leonard Cohen

Year of Release: 2016

What’s up with the Cover? Leonard smokes a cigarette, one hand hanging out a window as he gazes off into the abyss. As always, it gazes back at him.

How I Came To Know It: This is just the latest Leonard Cohen album, and I buy Leonard Cohen albums when they come out.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 13 Leonard Cohen albums. Of those, “You Want It Darker” is facing stiff competition, and I can only put it in at #10, bumping both “Popular Problems” and “Old Ideas” down a spot in the process.

Ratings: 4 stars

Cohen knew he was nearing the end when he recorded “You Want It Darker” and that focus is evident throughout the record. Reviewing the album now without having his death looming over every track isn’t possible now, so I’ll just have to let it loom.

On his two previous albums (2012’s “Old Ideas” and 2014’s “Popular Problems”) Cohen embraced jazz, lounge and rock elements, but “You Want It Darker” takes a starker approach more akin to 2001’s “Ten New Songs.”

“Ten New Songs” falls down on synthetic production values that numbed Cohen’s amazing lyrics, but he doesn’t make that mistake on “You Want It Darker.” This album is rich with amazing musicianship, and a stripped down quality that lets Cohen’s voice roll across the top of it all, like a thick fog spilling across the surface of a lake. There’s lots going on down in those depths, but wrapped in the gravelly tone of Cohen’s voice it feel close and personal, like he’s talking only to you.

Cohen has always made up for a lack of range with a poetic instinct for phrasing and emotional impact in his singing. As with most of his later career, he employs background singers to hit whatever high notes are needed to serve the song. On this record it is clear he wants it darker, though, and the backup vocalists are further back in the mix, and appear more sparsely than on previous records.

The record opens with the title track, which starts with an almost Gregorian chant that adds a quality of mysticism and religious reverence to the track. Cohen is laying his cards on the table (the imagery of quitting a card game runs throughout the record) and letting us know it is time to say goodbye.

Despite singing about his imminent death, Cohen never gets maudlin. He is ready to go, and he’s saying goodbye. When he sings, “I’m ready my Lord” it rings true.

Cohen also seems eager to square accounts with old friends and lovers. On “Treaty” he apologizes to someone, acknowledging his own ego in the process:

“They’re dancing in the streets – it’s Jubilee
We sold ourselves for love but now we’re free
I’m so sorry for the ghost I made you be
Only one of us was real – and that was me.”

So much of Leonard Cohen songs are the lyrics, and as a result his talents as a songwriter are often overlooked. “Leaving the Table” starts with a mournful guitar lick that reminded me of the fifties song by Johnny Ace “Pledging My Love” but “Leaving the Table” takes a discordant note at the end that tinges the song with regret and resignation.

As the record nears an end Cohen takes one last turn to deliver some advice on “Steer Your Way”:

“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
Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought.”

This is more advice Cohen is giving himself than advice for us, but as ever, we get to tag along for the ride. Cohen’s biblical imagery remains sharp and in focus, and while the song’s lyrics have an apocalyptic feel, there is a sublime violin lick at the end of each stanza that reminds us that there is a celebration here as well. Death is the next adventure.

I’ve had a hard time of it since hearing about Cohen’s death. I’ve wallowed too much and I’ve generally felt unfocused. “You Want It Darker” shows that Cohen handled it a lot better than I have. He settled his accounts, he spoke a few polite words of welcome to his maker, and he left us a record of his thoughts to guide us through those darker places one last time.

Best tracks: You Want It Darker, Treaty, Leaving the Table, Steer Your Way

No comments: