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Lenfest – creativity undimmed

10nesongsI’ve been having a little bit of a revisit of Cohen’s work.

This album, beautifully enhanced by the backing vocals (and indeed production) of Sharon Robinson, has a smoky, smooth jazz, torch song feel.

The voice has dropped and cracked with age, and some of the songs almost sprechsung in delivery, but Cohen’s lyrics are always worth focusing on. The musicality is provided by Robinson’s mellifluous, floated backing vocals, often slightly on the off-beat, setting up interesting tensions – most notably on the achingly beautiful, textured Alexandra Leaving – which seems to contain many possible meanings within it.

I also really loved the connected songs, A Thousand Kisses Deep (I’m back on Boogie leonard cohen bigSt) and the penultimate track, Boogie St – lines, and indeed, musical threads echo between the two. Religious imagery and the juxtaposition of sexual connection and connection to something transcendent and immaterial continues to twine through these songs, Cohen’s deep engagement with the mysteriousness of embodiment, a life which is matter and spirit.

Instrumentally, I found this less engaging than a much earlier album Recent Songs where Cohen used many instruments from different traditions, and styles of playing, to produce a tapestry of sounds; this album relying more on Sharon Robinson: ‘All tracks arranged programmed and performed by Sharon Robinson’ – so the use of synthesiser keyboards misses something wild, dynamic, untamed which was provided by the diversity of musicianship on the previous mentioned album. Her vocals though, are gorgeous

2452_kavafis_220x500However – as a small, critical aside, in trying to find a Youtube video to allow the playing of Alexandra Leaving, I found several covers of the song by other artists. To a woman and man they all seemed to find the need to embellish with vocal frills and furbelows, or over emote – and this includes Robinson herself, who now sings this as a solo in Cohen’s live concerts, since clearly the higher notes are now beyond him. What i find intriguing is that no chanteuse has understood that the complexity of the lyrics, part taken from, part freeflow inspired from Cavafy’s poem The God Abandons Anthony, needs the musical simplicity and dispassion Cohen himself allows.

Sure his voice is not the most beauteous of instruments and curiously it is exactly the smoky lived in damaged harshness of it that work so stunningly with the tenderness and violence of his lyrics. Sorry, other singers, but you seem to press your interpretations on too much, trying to create a thing which shows off your vocal beauty, or lets us see your suffering. Cohen’s curious stoicism IS the point that lifts this above the mundane song of the end of a love affair,  and contains the conflicts.

Here is the Cavafy poem which inspired this

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing. 

In a sense,the instruction to LISTEN with deep emotion but without whining and empty pleas, rather seems an instruction to a performer, like the instructors to actors in Hamlet to not saw the air, etc.
Leonard Cohen Ten New Songs Amazon UK
Leonard Cohen Ten New Songs Amazon USA