Boston Globe, US
October 12, 2001

Cohen's Demons Haunt Still

by Steve Morse

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Bard of the depressed, maestro of the downbeat, and prophet of dark-alley dreams. These phrases jump to mind when thinking of Leonard Cohen, the aging folk poet who still has the power to beguile. He's also been referred to as the "godfather of gloom," and even his label, Sony Records, just sent out some promotional materials calling him the "master of mortification" and the "sentry of solitude."

Yikes, is this someone we still want to listen to?

The answer, in these transformational times since Sept. 11, is yes - not just for artistic reasons, but as a way of experiencing a sonic psychodrama that makes us realize that pain is hardly an isolated occurrence.

Cohen is a true legend whose songs "Suzanne," "Bird on a Wire," and "Famous Blue Raincoat" have helped make him the subject of two major tribute albums - one in 1991, I'm Your Fan, featuring REM, John Cale, Nick Cave, and the Pixies; and another in 1995, Tower of Song, with contributions from Sting, Billy Joel, Elton John, and Willie Nelson.

Now comes Cohen's first album of new material since 1992, entitled Ten New Songs, which arrived in stores this week. It follows a five-year period when Cohen dropped out of sight to enter a Zen monastery on Mount Baldy outside of Los Angeles, where he rose at 3 a.m., meditated for long hours, and cooked for a 90-year-old Zen master named Roshi, to whom the new CD is dedicated.

He's now back in LA, wearing his dapper suits again, and finding new ways to be the "Stranger," which is even the name of his management company.

The new album does not preach religion, though there is some rare social commentary in the sparsely beautiful "Land of Plenty": "Don't really know who sent me to raise my voice and say - may the lights in the Land of Plenty shine on the truth some day."

Mostly, the CD finds Cohen, now 67, confronting his lonely demons once again. His baritone, spoken-word voice remains an acquired taste, as he delves into the dark cabaret of "Here It Is" ("May everyone live and may everyone die/ Hello, my love, and my love, goodbye") and "That Don't Make It Junk," about taking a wedding ring to a pawnshop. As he drawls in a near-whisper, "Too late to mix another drink, the lights are going out/ I'll listen to the darkness sing - I know what that's about."

Cohen's music retains a trademark sensitivity and is given some hope amid the darkness by the gently soulful backing vocals of Sharon Robinson, who also plays most of the instruments and does the computer programming that gives many tracks a haunting, ambient feel. And throughout, Cohen's poetry is still masterful, especially on "Alexandra Leaving," about remembering the details of a love affair (we don't know if it's real or imagined): "Upheld by the simplicities of pleasure, they gain the light, they formlessly entwine/ And radiant beyond your wildest measure, they fall among the voices and the wine."

Cohen, whose career spans nine volumes of poetry, two novels, and now 14 albums, creates interior mindscapes like no one else.

In the deceptively beautiful "Love Itself," colored with guitar arpeggios and tranquil piano fills, he depicts sunlight as a metaphor for "the rays of love." To this alchemical note, he adds, "In streams of light I clearly saw the dust you seldom see/ Out of which the Nameless makes a Name for one like me."

Clearly, Cohen's music is not for the casual fan. You can be sure of this, though: Few artists have confronted the darkness with as much dignity and compassion.

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