Leonard has landed
Wednesday, February 8, 2012 at 9:42AM

OK, record received and a couple of weeks taken for the music to circulate and opinions to form. You'll have seen reviews elsewhere, I'm sure, so you don't really need the overall judgment that follows: this is good stuff and well worthy of your attention – so buy it. Provided, of course, you like Leonard Cohen. There can't be many neutrals left when it comes to this most Marmite-ish of artists: devotee or detractor, choose your side.

I am decidedly with the first group. Leonard was one of the first singer-songwriters I really got and dug into, back in the heady days when I was first exploring music. Which inevitably means that a lot of the others seemed - and seem - pale and shallow in comparison. A friend's older brother had his first three records which we borrowed and taped and traded, and were hooked. Another friend's father was persuaded to drive us the hour or so to Leonard's concert at Manchester's Belle Vue in 1972 - the first big sit-down gig I'd been to - on the tour that spawned Live Songs and Tony Palmer's Bird On The Wire film. Even with no real comparators for calibration, I knew that this was good, and special.

I'd also acquired a battered, secondhand copy of a songbook covering the first two albums and was diligently working my clumsy-fingered way through it as I battled to learn to play the guitar. (A historical note, children: back in the dark ages before the web, songbooks were often the only route to working out how to play a song for those with undeveloped ears. And much printed music was arranged for the piano and featured unlikely and/or just-plain-wrong chord diagrams. This one was a splendid guitar-oriented exception, so I gave it special attention.)

Why am I telling you all this? Because the hours with the songbook not only helped immerse me in LC's lyrics - which usually and unsurprisingly get the most attention from the critics - but also helped me appreciate his often underrated musicality. There are some great tunes and nice harmonic touches lurking in there. And my early exposure to The Army and to the man's sardonic stage patter gave the lie to the (still-circulating) caricature of a funereal, solitary depressive hunched over his nylon-strung acoustic.

All of which meant that I relished the rockier arrangements on record heralded by New Skin For The Old Ceremony, loved a second live exposure at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1985 and was knocked out by the bounce and verve of I'm Your Man three years later. And meant I was correspondingly somewhat underwhelmed by the lower-key, half-spoken, female-backing-singer-heavy, synthesiser-based approach which informed much of Ten New Songs and Dear Heather. (I can't remember the last time I played the latter and I've just had to look at the sleeve to remind myself what's on it - not much really leaps out to me.)

I was then upbeat, excited and flat-out astonished by two exposures to the phenomenal 2008-9 World Tour, at the O2 and here in Brighton. Amazing energy, Leonard in great voice and lovely arrangements from a brilliant band. And what a great atmosphere the concerts were played in: amazing warmth flowing both ways between audience and stage. This wasn't rose-tinted retrospection, the last chance to remember when he used to be good and patronise a plucky septuagenarian before he finally shuffles off. No, this was as good as it ever was - we knew it and he knew it, and the CDs and DVDs prove it.

So, no pressure, Len, for this, the twelfth studio album, released in your seventy-eighth year. 

Relax, it's a keeper. The best release for twenty years, I'd say. (And it's a pleasantly Cohen-ish thought that The Future is now twenty years ago...)

I'll get my carping out of the way first: it could have been even better if he'd used his well-honed tour band for more than one song - there are still quite a lot of similar sounding, similar paced numbers featuring a bit more girly oohing than is good for them. But there is definitely more light and shade here, nice use of additional instrumentation, and three songs on which LC plays guitar (and which sound as if they were written on guitar). Furthermore, the one tour band song, 'Darkness' is something to treasure.

As are the words: OK, we're not going to get the ornate lyrical flourishes of the first couple of albums again - just as Bruce Springsteen won't revisit The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, or Bob Dylan Blonde On Blonde - but this is late-period Leonard at his pithy, quotable, double and triple-edged best.

Let's take it song by song:

The troubles came

I saved what I could save

A thread of light

A particle

A wave

           and I hear echoes in that 'light' of the glorious 'crack in everything' from The Future's 'Anthem'.

I'm old and the mirrors don't lie

But crazy has places to hide in

Deeper than any goodbye.

You want to live where the suffering is

I want to get out of town.

C'mon baby give me a kiss

Stop writing everything down.

I will stop in a minute, honestly. But having mentioned Mojo's LC interview, I'd also like to commend the CD glued to its front cover: The Songs Of Leonard Cohen Covered.

This, as the name suggests, comprises all ten songs from Songs Of..., plus five bonus tracks from the next two albums, covered by a wide range of folk, quite a few of which I hadn't heard before. Most were specially recorded, plus a nice Will Oldham version of 'Winter Lady' from the 90s.

Now, you may be familiar with other such compilations and you may have doubts. I agree that hearing Leonard's words from other mouths rather reminds you of what you are missing: much better vocalists than him, several hundred storeys up in the Tower of Song, can sound two-dimensional in comparison; and nobody so completely inhabits a Cohen lyric like its creator - a poltergeist lurking in the fabric of the building. The coverers tend to take things too slow and too seriously. On the other hand, some people are able to make you really listen with a new and engaging phrasing, or an unexpected arrangement.

For me, the best Cohen cover ever is still REM's storming take on 'First We Take Manhattan', and there's nothing quite in that league here. But honorable mentions in particular for Liz Green's intelligent rethinking of 'Sisters Of Mercy' to a piano accompaniment; Bill Callahan's questing stab at 'So Long Marianne'; and Diagrams' transformed - and lovely - 'Famous Blue Raincoat.' And I was taken by the Miserable Rich's version of 'The Stranger Song', after thinking I was going to hate it when it started. It is pitched so much higher than the original that the vocal sometimes verges on falsetto. Its dense and intricate string arrangement has real emotional heft. The singer is clearly thinking about the words and finding new meanings. I find they come from Brighton: definitely a band to look out for.

So, well worth a listen. Think of it as a CD for £4.50 with a free magazine and you'll even persuade yourself you're getting a bargain.

The Mojo article talks of Leonard working on the next album and contemplating going back on the road. I hope there is a lot more to come from this quite extraordinary career.

Article originally appeared on Eden On The Line (http://edenontheline.co.uk/).
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