Saturday 20 July 2019

Cohen, still reaching the parts others can't

Leonard Cohen Old Ideas (Columbia Records)

After a colourful career in pop music, Montreal poet Leonard Cohen retired to a Buddhist monastery to concentrate on the spiritual aspects of the human experience.

But the price of robes and rice in California must have rocketed because when he discovered he'd been fleeced by his accountant, he came down the mountain in a hurry and got stuck into some hectic worldwide touring.

He got more than he bargained for as his concerts began to resemble a pop Eucharistic Congress. In the past, Leonard has railed against "the flabby liars of the Aquarian age". In Dublin, the front rows seemed stacked with devalued politicians, reprobate financial speculators and deluded custodians of our cultural heritage.

Still, it would be unfair to stone the prophet for the sins of devotees. We should celebrate his ability to combine his great odyssey into the transpersonal with saving his bank balance, particularly since his work offers a mix of solace, insight and a welcome quota of wry chuckles.

Cohen's poetry reaches parts that most singer-songwriters could never dream of. The voice with which he delivers his couplets is deeper and more resonant than seems natural for baritones. On the elegiac opening song Going Home, he makes Lee Marvin's Wanderin' Star sound like One Direction on helium.

His female friends Dana Glover, Sharon Robinson, Jennifer Warnes, Hattie and Charley Webb accompany Leonard on many of these 10 songs.

Taken at an unhurried, funereal pace, the album hangs together as a cohesive body of work with instrumentation relying less on synthesizers than Ten Songs or Dear Heather.

Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Paul Simon and Neil Diamond are artists whose later work acknowledges that the curtain must eventually come down on the show. Two years before he died, WB Yeats wrote, "A poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedy . . ." It would seem Leonard Cohen has been paying attention.

"I've got no future. I know my days are few . . ." he drawls on The Darkness, a smoky blues underpinned by a bass riff and bubbling Hammond organ.

The restful Lullaby is just that. Like the rest of Old Ideas, it's a warm late-night nursery rhyme from a man who can see in the dark. HHHHI

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