New York Daily News Online
October 14, 2001

Laser Beam on Love:
Leonard Cohen Returns with
Masterpiece of Wry Romanticism

by Jim Farber

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Leonard Cohen brought his latest album down from the mountaintop.


The great bard of modern pop spent five of the last eight years since his previous release living in a Buddhist monastery in California's San Gabriel Mountains, no doubt pondering the larger truths of life so he could write them down in song.

Would you expect anything less from him?

Cohen's albums always have had the timelessness and seriousness of sacred music. His songs never seem bound by any genre, era or theme. Instead they arrive, all too infrequently, like surprise care packages dropped from the sky onto pop's bleak terrain. Fans rip them open to feast on every sacrament and treat.

Ten New Songs offers plenty of both. Although its title announces a lack of cohesion, the album has one clear mission: to give the writer even more ways to lavish attention on love.

To Cohen, love is more than a feeling. It's an idea, an entity, a religion, even the life force itself. This Canadian novelist and poet has been turning this theme into gorgeous music since he began his recording career in 1968. Soon after, he established himself as one of the few great lyric writers of the modern pop era, alongside Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. (Runnerup: Elvis Costello.)

The 67-year-old Cohen has slowed his output in the last 20 years. This is only his fourth collection of fresh material since 1979. But, as always, the new songs seem completely familiar in terms of their sound, while their language is revelatory.

Working with frequent musical collaborator Sharon Robinson, Cohen sticks to his forte: the slow, shrouded ballad delivered in a dusty whisper. His songs sound like psalms drawn from the most reverent of American roots music folk, blues and country but spiked with Brechtian theatricalism.

Cohen's voice is in every way deep. He has a husky, laconic baritone full of sex, humor and faith. As on previous records, he couples it with a female voice (here Robinson's) that offers a counterpoint.

Cohen's music has romance and religion to it, but his words, like all poetry, would have movement without any instrumental accompaniment at all. They create rhythm through meter, alliteration and rhyme.

"Suddenly the night has grown colder / The God of love preparing to depart / Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder / They slip between the sentries of the heart."

This, to describe getting dumped.

For all his gravity, Cohen also can be terribly funny. He opens the new country song "That Don't Make It Junk" with a couplet that would make Johnny Cash cackle: "I fought against the bottle / But I had to do it drunk."

Most of the humor on the album comes in his wry delivery or in the shock value of his observations. During "Thousand Kisses Deep," Cohen offers a withering way to describe vanishing youth: He calls it "your little winning streak." The song "In My Secret Life" finds him savoring the unconscious as a last refuge. "The dealer wants you thinking / That it's either black or white / Thank God it's not that simple / In my secret life."

It's a sweet acknowledgment that dreams are half of what make us. With that in mind, Cohen spends much of his work imagining fanciful and hopeless ways to quantify the force of love.

In "Love Itself" he tries to turn the feeling into something plain to the naked eye: "In streams of light I clearly saw / The dust you seldom see / Out of which the Nameless makes / A name for one like me...all busy in the sunlight / The flecks did float and dance / And I was tumbled up with them / In formless circumstance."

In "Here It Is" Cohen points to love and death as if they could be located like places on a map. He comes closest to assessing love's shifts and fathoms in "A Thousand Kisses Deep," where each caress brings a new layer or shading one that signals either greater intimacy or distance.

To shine such a piercing light on experience is Cohen's genius. Coupled with the grace of his music, it continues to make his words worthy of worship.

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