Cohen koan

Pub date April 8, 2009
SectionMusicSectionSonic Reducer


SONIC REDUCER What becomes a pop legend? Mink, knighthood, screaming nubiles, Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction, or the Companionship of the Order of Canada? Nay, Lancelot Bass, to a biz looking for its next buck, it’s chart success at the beyond-ripe age of 74.

The curious case of Leonard Cohen: more than 40 years after his classic-crammed debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen (Columbia, 1967), this songwriting genius saw the rocket-boost of mainstream pop acceptance last year, as Jeff Buckley’s version of Cohen’s "Hallelujah" shot to the top of the iTunes charts after Jason Castro interpreted it on American Idol. One Tree Hill starlet Kate Voegele took another stab at the tune — already a TV and film staple covered by everyone from John Cale and Rufus Wainwright to Sheryl Crow and Willie Nelson. The final shoe dropped last December, when a rendition by Alexandra Burke, winner of UK TV’s X Factor, occupied the top of the UK singles charts, with Buckley’s take at #2, and Cohen’s original at #36. Cohen’s current North American tour — his first in 15 years — seems like a natural next step, especially since even the supremely gifted need to eat. (His ex-manager Kelley Lynch misappropriated millions while he was secluded as a Zen Buddhist monk in the late 1990s.)

While it’s no surprise that a relatively recent Cohen creation such as 1984’s "Hallelujah" should become a contemporary standard, working its way into Shrek (2001) and the ambivalent superhero sex scene in Watchmen, the song is still an unlikely commercial success, given its spiritual yearning and hard-boiled smarts. As Bryan Appleyard wrote in the U.K.’s Sunday Times in 2005, "it sounds like a pop song, but it isn’t …. It is a tuneful but ironic mask worn to conceal bitter atonal failure." Cohen’s "Hallelujah" is a gently meta-maniacal song rumination on songwriting and faith, clad in biblical allusions, that finds hope in submission to an uncaring muse.

However hard to picture, there are through lines between Cohen’s original, synth-driven "Hallelujah" and what some call his worst LP, Death of a Ladies’ Man (Columbia, 1977), an overwhelmingly orchestrated collaboration with Phil Spector that imploded as the producer barred Cohen from the final mix, allegedly threatening him with a crossbow.

"I’ve put my trust/And all my faith to see … /Her naked body! Oooh-oooh, oh my baby, can you see her naked body?"

Cohen never sounds as unbridled as he does on Death‘s "Memories," as youthful trysts take the fall with this mocking jack-off, the album’s centerpiece. I like to imagine his vocals were loosey-goosey placeholders. Anyone with a well-blackened punk sense of humor can appreciate the larky, screw-you ethos of this overwrought artifact, decorated with an image of the songwriter flanked by his morose then-wife Suzanne Elrod. Was this Cohen’s jokey fare-thee-well to horndog profligacy?

A cranky attack on youth and "Sound of Young America" pop, "Memories" is also the sound of Spector doffing his aviator shades and jabbing at his own mirrored eyeball and "Be My Baby" legacy. This Sha Nyah Nyah take on the same intermingling of faith and sexuality that underlies "Hallelujah" is constructed as a wall of soup, ready to splash down on Cohen’s fragile voice, sometimes subsumed by an ever-present anima: his female backup vocalists, a beloved counterpart to Spector’s highly controlled girl groups.

But "Memories" should perhaps remain in the past. For a strong hit of current Cohen go to the new Live in London DVD, which is infinitely preferable to 2005’s name-checking doc Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. Released along with a CD set, this straightforward, two-hour-plus document of a June 2008 arena show in London beats all that grainy Glastonbury footage on YouTube with its graceful shots of Cohen lost in the center of "Everybody Knows," eyes squeezed closed and mic cord clenched in a fist.

The greatest pleasures come from hearing later Cohen recordings reworked by a full band and witnessing the warmth and graciousness of a songwriter humbled by his audience. "It’s wonderful to be gathered here on just the other side of intimacy," he says wryly at one point, soon segueing seamlessly into the chorus of "Anthem": "Ring the bells that still can ring /Forget your perfect offering /There is a crack in everything /That’s how the light gets in." And perhaps that’s how — and why — Cohen has gone from haunting the rooms of heartsick "Memories" to becoming the go-to guy for a shot of lyrical intelligence: he recognizes our battered souls and sings those elegant, oft-unspoken truths still lingering in the sad café of the pop unconscious.


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