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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Artist: Leonard Cohen
Length: 13 tracks
Leonard Cohen has always been the cerebral rock star. After all, he was a novelist and poet first only turning to song to sell more product. Yet the mind is not Cohen’s ultimate concern. He is all about the sensuality of heart and ardor of soul. This is the Canadian’s eleventh album and is a whole lot less wordy than normal. When you consider that he had written fifty verses for some of the songs on 1992’s The Future and that there are only five lines to the title track on this one, it suggests that our Jewish friend's time in the hills of California doing Zen Buddhist meditation has led to economy of word.
Another way that the spiritual pilgrimage of his sixtieth decade has influenced this work is the repetitive nature of some of the songs. The central piece here is "Villanelle For Our Time" which repeats the reflections of Frank Scott for almost six minutes. With any other artist, the overuse of the key lines, “from bitter searching of the heart/ We rise to play a greater part” would have grown wearisome but this is where Cohen’s voice becomes to quote the Gospel writers, “as one having authority and not as the scribes.” (Note for the spiritual squeamish; this is poetic licence with no theological intent!). By its end your soul is ready to refurbish your life; you want to give your soul a darn good thrashing, make it clean, and start all over to make your mark across the world.
Spiritual concerns are evident throughout and the album is topped and tailed by questions of love’s stamina to hold out in a world that must weary it beyond measure. In Lord Byron’s "Go No More A Roving" there is suggestion it needs a breather and the penultimate track, "The Faith," nicked from a Quebec folk song, asks, “Oh love, aren’t you tired yet?” Of course a recent event that must have left love short of breath was 9/11 and Cohen gives it a short reflection leaving a few hints at answers ("Some people say/It’s what we deserve/For sins against g¬d/For crimes in the world") as he asks why. But in the end he is happy to get on with it in the confusion, refusing conclusions ("I wouldn’t know/I’m just holding the fort/Since the day/they wounded New York").
One does always come back to Cohen’s voice and early reviews have questioned its strength of power. Maybe he is speaking more and singing less but this voice is a powerful instrument and this seventy-year-old sings when asking for a cup of coffee. It has profound spiritual impact. Goodness what a preacher he would have made! It is also an astonishingly sensual sound and the sexiest pensioner in the world admits on "Because Of" that, “Because of a few songs/Wherein I spoke of their mystery/Women have been/Exceptionally kind to my old age.” I bet they have Leonard!
It is, however, in the romantic department where the album makes its one failure. The title track is another exercise in repetition. This time it is only five lines about Heather’s “legs all white from the winter”. He even descends into spelling out white and winter. It is tedious and in truth, pathetic. Maybe an attempt at a little whimsy and humour. Failed!
As on 2001’s Ten New Songs, Cohen’s lack of vocal range is supplemented by the singing of Sharon Robinson and Anjani Thomas. When they throw another hue across songs like "Villanelle For Our Time" there are no doubts. When they take stretches on their own you are not so sure but when they light up the epiphany of "Morning Glory," you stop quibbling.
Like Cohen himself, his music is tailored and tasteful, handsome on the outside and tender of soul within. Earthly pleasure and heavenly desire rarely compliment each other so well.
Steve Stockman 11/21/2004