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Ten New Songs
Artist: Leonard Cohen
Length: 10 tracks
"I've seen the future, it is murder," Cohen sang, nine years ago, and these days that seems all too true. On his new album, Ten New Songs, Cohen delves deeper, finding richer ground in his own haunted history and in spiritual dialogues with the Divine. The record plays like a religious diary, in which human love eventually fails to hold back the tide of loneliness and dissatisfaction, but Divine Love persists as an agent of grace and hope in the midst of trial.
The trial sounds like old age, both in his voice and his lyrics. He's preoccupied with memory, seeing the failures of human endeavor and the lasting influence of God. He sounds content to whisper, letting the language carry the urgency rather than the singing. Questing for satisfaction in human relationships only leaves him exhausted and more thirsty than when he began. "My Secret Life" chronicles his unfulfilled dreams of romantic love, and follows this with the song of a drowning man, a message in a bottle called "A Thousand Kisses Deep": "Confined to sex, we pressed against the limits of the sea / I saw there were no oceans left for scavengers like me." A kiss is often the symbol of a betrayal, and here they mark the progress down a lost highway, to a breakdown and an acknowledgement of failure. There's a beautiful nod to Robert Frost, as he admits he still has "miles to go, and promises to keep."
The music remains lounge-y, spooky, minimal, letting the words work their charms. There are no instrumental solos to speak of, and backup singer Sharon Robinson adds haunting beauty, even taking some verses on her own, which again returns our attention to the importance of lyric over performance.
In interviews, Cohen denies that his decade at the Mount Baldy Zen center represented a conversion to Buddhism. He argues instead that he is as devout in his faith than ever, and that the center gave him a place of contemplation and rejuvenation. His poetic conversations with God have deepened, and there are some startlingly humble observations, as in "You Have Loved Enough", where he realizes that all of his claims to have loved are false, and rather Love is an outside force: "I am not the one who loved / It's love that chooses me / When hatred with its package comes / You forbid delivery."
The secular, fast-paced world of materialism to which Cohen has returned appears to him as a sort of worldly wonderland. He calls it "Boogie Street." (Who else could get away with that?) It's a place of earthly love, which, while not enough, he acknowledges as the medium in which we grow and seek and learn. "It is in love that we are made / In love we disappear / Though all the maps of blood and flesh/ Are posted on the door/ There's no one who has told us yet / What Boogie Street is for." He announces that he's back in a way that silently asks the question, Why? and Is it a good idea? "I'm wanted at the traffic jam, they're saving me a seat / I'm what I am, and what I am / Is back on Boogie Street."
For most singers, calling our pop culture world "Babylon" would be pretentious, but Cohen has earned the right to do so. Who can argue with a voice that reflects such road-weary experience? "I bite my lip, I buy what I'm told / From the latest hit, to the wisdom of old / But I'm always alone and my heart is like ice / And it's crowded and cold in my secret life."
Perhaps it's the humility, the unassuming nature of his prophecies that makes these bitter pills so easy to swallow. In the suitably hopeful yet harsh album closer, he offers a matter-of-fact prayer: "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."
Does it take ten years in a monastery to produce ten songs like these? Perhaps, but apparently Cohen has produced a whole lot more than that during his meditations. Rumor has it he has 250 new poems in tow as he returns to Boogie Street. If they're anywhere as good as this batch, that'll be a volume to treasure. Whether his return is regarded as merely a cultural event, or as a message of portent that might provoke repentance and change in the heart and mind of each listener ... well, time will tell.
Jeffrey Overstreet 3/20/2002