Chicago Daily Herald, US
November 23, 2001

The Sound of Serenity:
Leonard Cohen Returns after Eight-Year Hiatus

by Mark Guarino

Close Window to Return to Menu

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, amid the flurry of tribute concerts, telethons and benefit CDs springing up across the nation, one new album quietly slipped by the rush, in much the same manner of its supple-voiced singer.

Leonard Cohen has come down from the mountain. Which, for those following the songwriter's career since the late '60s, comes as a surprise. Five years ago it was assumed that Cohen had finally hung up his hat, trekking to a Zen retreat outside Los Angeles and atop Mt. Baldy to study with monks and reportedly meditate for six hours a day.

While similar strokes of self-fulfillment tend to read as extravagant vanity retreats for most celebrities, Cohen's move to the simple life felt entirely appropriate.

Cohen's best contribution to pop music is his particular brand of solitude - the purr in his voice, the often dark, apocalyptic lyrics and the sexy production values that captures a dark romance. All have earned him an otherworldy stature among his admirers but commercial success mostly in Europe. Nevertheless, there have been already several tribute albums dedicated to his songs and his covers have run the range of vocalists - from marquee name pop stars (Elton John, Billy Joel, Sting, Neil Diamond) to his introspective cult peers (Lloyd Cole, Nick Cave, John Cale).

Cohen's appeal is that he doesn't fit the conventional pop-star role. In fact, before his first album in 1967, Cohen was already established as a prolific poet, with three collections of verse already in print and a few more to come, complementing his albums.

Raised in Montreal, Cohen was already in his 30s when '60s flower power came and went. His literary interests were a better fit with what was happening on the East Coast, with more word-minded songwriters like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the rest of the folk revival scene in Greenwich Village.

John Hammond, the talent scout who signed Dylan and later Bruce Springsteen, was encouraged by the two Cohen covers that appeared on a Judy Collins album in 1966. He approached the poet and helped him release the late-bloomer's debut the next year.

Nine albums later we have the sparely titled Ten New Songs (Columbia), his first new collection in eight years. While it naturally follows the footsteps of his previous albums, the new songs also summon a deeper level of intimacy.

Cohen's voice is recorded so closely, he sounds curled up tightly next to you, his husky baritone voice whispering in your ear in the cool nighttime air.

Collaborator Sharon Robinson drapes the midnight mood with her computer software skills. Aside from the tasteful R&B guitar licks from Bob Metzger, the rest of the album's uncluttered instrumentation was performed by digital machines. Simple synthesizers, instrument samples and programmed drum beats permeate the album and create an organic, soulful sound that wraps around Cohen's voice and her own multitracked harmonies in the background. Robinson co-wrote two of Cohen's best known songs in the past ("Everybody Knows" and "Waiting for the Miracle"), and also co-wrote all 10 songs here. Her likeness appropriately appears on the cover artwork alongside his own.

She reintroduces some signature themes common in Cohen territory: the nighttime romantic whose entire identity is found in the dark corners of "Boogie Street," the personal protest song that's both personal and universal ("The Land of Plenty") and the drunkard's lament aching with a comic's heart ("That Don't Make It Junk").

Cohen's rebirth in Zen surfaces on the songs with a striking spiritual focus. "By The Rivers Dark" follows a story with almost biblical might. "I lived my life in Babylon / and I did forget my holy song," he sings until later: "He cut out my heart ... and he said 'this heart; it is not yours.'" In "Love Itself," Cohen stares at dust dancing in sunlight and, in the purest meditative move, imagines himself inside it.

Like the wider circle of poets who don't even attempt second careers as songwriters, Cohen is commonly mistaken as a morose bystander, with an ear for trouble. While his knack for dark mystery is what is so illuminating about his past albums, Ten New Songs shines a wider light on the missing ingredient: serenity. The slinky R&B opening song, "In My Secret Life," may paint a terrifying picture of complacency ("nobody cares if the people live or die," he purrs), but at age 67, Cohen sounds at least settled in with it more. There may be no escaping the fact we're all "crowded and cold," but as these smoky-sounding songs suggests, there's a strange comfort in it, too.

Close Window to Return to Menu