Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On #53 - Leonard Cohen - New Skin For the Old Ceremony

Amongst a number of Leonard Cohen aficionados this album seems to have acquired a reputation as a lesser recording in his catalog. My suspicion is that they don't like it as much for exactly the reasons that I think it's one of his finest recordings. It's not just the consistency of the album - Cohen has plenty of solid records out there - but it's the appearance here after three largely acoustic, somewhat somber records of both Cohen's sense of humor worn on sleeve instead of woven subtly into his words and a more prominent role for the music, formerly there mostly to support those words. In short - he's taking his poet's gift for words and making the music signify as much as the lyrics, something he hadn't quite dared to do before.
This isn't to say that there's no sense of humor or sublime music on his first three records, all of which are certainly worthwhile as well, it's just that this album finds Cohen in a more generous and even lighter mood, letting his sly wit out to run more than on the previous three albums combined. He's still the serious man of the world of those earlier records, detailing the struggles of human relationships at several levels, from the personal to the political, with a keen eye, but he doesn’t mind roving to other topics, or to letting a joke have free reign. When he offers up his sly wit in defense of his music in "A Singer Must Die" he knows he's simultaneously making a self-effacing joke and a great song by apologizing for his brilliantly inexpert work with the line "I'm sorry for smudging the air with my song.”
And the music! By bringing in arranger/producer Jon Lissauer to replace previous producers John Simon and Bob Johnston, both of whom had done stellar work with artists throughout the 1960’s (you may have heard of some of their other clients – Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Johnny Cash, The Band, Janis Joplin, etc.), Cohen expanded and changed the sound of his albums. The new producer was able to find a group of settings - sometimes evoking jazz, sometimes rock and roll, sometimes Cohen’s folk roots – that worked alongside his music rather than merely supporting it. And the reward is not only Cohen’s most varied album to that point, one with a character unique in his catalog, but also one that scored several of his all-time best songs – “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” and “Who By Fire” evoke his older material with brilliant words, female backing vocals and largely acoustic backing, but “Lover Lover Lover” offers up a driving beat and percussion to complement the longing words while “There Is A War” puts its eternal “us vs. them” conundrum across on the same kind of percussive pulse. And those are only a few of my own faves – Cohen doesn’t step wrong here, and neither does Lissauer, who from congas to jew’s harp to New Orleans-y clarinets finds great ways to add a spoonful of sugar to Cohen’s sometimes acid words.
Those first three albums are great, be sure some time to grab Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs From A Room, and Songs of Love and Hate (really, pick up all the Cohen records you can get your hands on), but don’t think that because of their reputation that this album is in any regard a step down for Cohen because he chose to expand what he was capable of on record.
-Patrick Brown

1 comment:

Carole said...

Nice post. You might be interested in this post about the new Leonard Cohen album. http://caroleschatter.blogspot.co.nz/2012/04/old-ideas-by-leonard-cohen.html