Thursday, January 18, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1094: Leonard Cohen

My last review was the crazy heavy metal horror opera of King Diamond’s “Abigail” so this next album was quite an auditory adjustment. I’ve been a bit stressed this week, though, and ending it with a little Leonard Cohen is just what the music doctor ordered.

Disc 1094 is…Ten New Songs
Artist: Leonard Cohen

Year of Release: 2001

What’s up with the Cover? Cohen is no stranger to the Giant Head album cover, but this time he goes with Two Giant Heads in deference to the key role Sharon Robinson played in co-writing and performing on the record.

How I Came To Know It: As an avowed fan of Cohen’s music since the late eighties, I just bought his albums as soon as they were released. That’s what happened here.

How It Stacks Up:  I have thirteen studio albums by Leonard Cohen. I love them all including this one. I had originally reserved ninth spot for it but I feel like a few records are better than it after all so I’ve bumped it to twelfth. There is no shame in being the twelfth best Leonard Cohen album, though.

Ratings: 3 stars

I began my walk home tonight in the dark and rainy gloom of a west coast winter with my brain racing with work like a hamster on a wheel, but the soothing tones of Leonard Cohen slowly soothed my troubles. He didn’t get me off the hamster wheel so much as show me there were other avenues my mind could explore that were so much better for the spirit.

High praise for an album I rank so low, but such is the power of Cohen’s art; he lifts you to a higher understanding even amidst the gloom. Or as he puts it on “That Don’t Make it Junk”:

“I’ll listen to the darkness sing –
I know what that’s about.”

This record was written and recorded during a period that Cohen had gone into voluntary exile at a monastery in California. Shed of all worldly distractions he was reconnecting with himself. It feels like the same old Leonard to me – willing to admit his own fallibility and find some wisdom in the wreckage, if maybe a bit more subdued.

“Ten New Songs” is a reflective collection of songs, with Cohen at his best when he explores relationships gone awry. “In My Secret Life” explores that imaginary place we go where things worked out, juxtaposed against the failure of the real world, first about lost love and later about more general human failings. It is a brilliant song that survives a truly horrible drum machine beat – but more on that later.

My favourite song on the record is “Alexandra Leaving,” another song exploring relationships. It is a complicated one and I freely admit my interpretation could be…er…open to interpretation. To me, the song explores one last sexual tryst, followed by the end of the relationship come dawn. Cohen is obsessed with an open and honest exploration of what went wrong. The song is replete with great lines, but the stanza I think most telling is:

“As someone long prepared for the occasion;
In full command of every plan you wrecked –
Do not choose a coward’s explanation
That hides behind the cause and the effect.”

The song reminds me of an earlier track from “Recent Songs” called “The Traitor” and explores a relationship that continues behind falseness after it should rightly end.

Alexandra Leaving” is based off of a poem by C.P Cavafy called “The God Abandons Antony” which is about leaving the city Alexandria, and the way Cohen and Robinson have reimagined it is gorgeous on its own, and even more layered when you read the poem, then listen to the song.

It isn’t all sadness and loss, though. “You Have Loved Enough” is an intimate exploration of both love and sex. When Cohen decides to put a little allure into that gravelly voice he woos with the best of ‘em and the line:

“That I am not the one who loves –
It’s love that seizes me,
When hatred with his package comes,
You forbid delivery.”

Is a lesson for us all: just cross your arms and let that UPS guy return that stuff to sender.

So what caused this record to tumble to twelfth? The biggest issue is the production. A lot of the recording of the album is done on simple computer equipment with a lot of electronic drum beats where on a lot of other Cohen albums relies on live musicians for everything – usually great ones. There are musicians aplenty on “Ten New Songs” as well but they are a bit too buried in the mix.

Also, while the slow soul-music style croon works on some tracks it gets a little old by the end of the record. I found I was increasingly hoping for a bit less ambient hum and a bit more of good old fashioned strings and pianos.

For all that, I was still happy to revisit this record and – like Cohen’s entire catalogue – I will keep doing so until the day I follow him into whatever comes next.

Best tracks: In My Secret Life, That Don’t Make it Junk, Love Itself, Alexandra Leaving

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