New York Times, US
October 28, 2001

Leonard Cohen:
Down from the Mountain,
Singing with More Serenity

by Ann Powers

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Here's a Zen question: does spending the better part of five years in a mountaintop abbey, meditating and cooking, cleaning and putting chains on the abbey's truck, change a person? Leonard Cohen, having descended last year from the enclave of Joshu Sasaki Roshi in the hills above Los Angeles, would like to suggest that he is still the same old romantic known for his ways with wine, women and song. Or perhaps not.

"It's hard to say, because one is doing only the thing one is doing," he said during a recent interview in Manhattan to promote his 10th studio album, neatly titled Ten New Songs. "When I finished the last tour, in 1993, I was approaching 60 and my old teacher was approaching 90. So I thought it was appropriate to spend more time with him. I went up there on a kind of open-ended basis, and I stayed for five or six years and came back down, but there was no thematic rupture."

"The songs were written during that period," he continued. "But it is hard to say what the influence of a teacher and a very close friend was. Friends are continually influencing each other in subtle ways."

Mr. Cohen acknowledged that six hours of meditation a day may have made a mark. "Yes, well, anytime you concentrate your life on anything and make some even mild effort at avoiding distraction, the general tone of your being will improve," he said. Yet like many a Zen riddler before him, Mr. Cohen played down any aura of enlightenment. "There's no place where ordinary life doesn't prevail," he said.

In the monastery, he rose before dawn, interacted with a small coterie and prepared many meals. Later, making Ten New Songs in his Los Angeles home studio, he did the same. The monks were replaced by his collaborators, Sharon Robinson and Leanne Ungar, and the salmon teriyaki he made for Sasaki Roshi was traded for tuna sandwiches.

The writer who in earlier songs, poems and stories had painted smoky visions of Joan of Arc and countless less metaphorical lovers was now pursuing something more plain. His new compositions reflected a mind bent on clarity. Ten New Songs is not about conversion, however, or the cleaning away of old fascinations. It's a musical account of how subtle a change in perspective can be.

The shift is noticeable from the album's first cut, "In My Secret Life." An electronic drumbeat and a teasing lick from the guitarist Bob Metzger lead in to a soulful chorus of women's voices, a Cohen trademark. Then comes his burnished croak, a thorn among the roses, mourning the loss of a drifting paramour. It's all so familiar, but beneath the song's veneer another story emerges.

"I wanted the song to begin like a classic rock 'n' roll song, a rhythm-and-blues song," Mr. Cohen said. "And then it becomes more honest as it moves along." The transition comes when Ms. Robinson, who provided all the women's voices, emerges as a soloist. The brandy sniffer's lament becomes a murmur of the universal spirit. "Hold on, hold on, my brother. My sister, hold on tight," she sings, her multitracked voice directing the lament to where the border between despair and transcendence blurs.

It's appropriate that a woman's voice should emerge as the herald of the divine, since Mr. Cohen's main haunt has always been the intersection of sex and the psyche. Ms. Robinson has worked with Mr. Cohen off and on for two decades and was the co- writer of favorites like "Everybody Knows." On Ten New Songs her role is expanded: she is credited as sole producer and pictured with Mr. Cohen on the cover. "The album is really a duet," he said.

Ms. Robinson preferred to call the album a close collaboration. "I think of this work as a continuation of Leonard's previous work," she said. "The changes I see are very natural ones, brought about by experience, continuous effort, introspection and study."

A Zen poem describing great wonders begins: "I came and I returned. It was nothing special." Ten New Songs takes a similar attitude. Like all of Mr. Cohen's songs, these celebrate great beauty and mourn tragic loss, but they do so with striking composure. In these songs, Mr. Cohen, the graying hero, is dancing with the one conquest he knows he can't make.

That shadowy object of desire is whatever causes the rare experience of unity, felt through sex, meditation, revelation or art. Ms. Robinson represents the calling forth of this force throughout the album, only to have Mr. Cohen's prosaic baritone return the music to the day to day.

"Boogie Street," for example, begins with another prayerlike passage, quickly overcome by Mr. Cohen's muttered list of everyday concerns. "I'm wanted at the traffic jam," he sings, as Ms. Robinson's lament for heaven's "crown of light" lingers in the background.

Mr. Cohen quoted his lyric in conversation. "'You kiss my lips and then it's done, I'm back on Boogie Street,'" he said. Then he elaborated: "We're continually moving from whatever it is that overthrows the notion of the self, back to the burden of the self. But if you're lucky, you come back to Boogie Street with the residue of the other experience. That cools you out."

Coolness permeates Ten New Songs; that's another way it strays from Mr. Cohen's usual after-midnight mood. This deviation is aural, and again its catalyst was Ms. Robinson. She and Ms. Ungar, the album's engineer, worked with Mr. Cohen to use studio software that created a sound that's intimate yet unearthly.

"We didn't start out with a particular direction in mind, but about halfway through, the use of sampled instruments and synths became a deliberate choice," Ms. Robinson recalled. "We liked the cohesive, impersonal sound and the way it worked with Leonard's voice."

Mr. Cohen described the process in more detail. "Sharon would present demos to me," he recalled. "Our intention was to replace these synthesizer sounds with live musicians, but I began to see that her demos were of a very high quality. I began to insist that we keep the demos and change the keys because that's easy to do with the software available now."

The private nature of this recording process was enhanced by the clean sound sought by Ms. Ungar, who has contributed a similarly introspective ambiance to albums by Laurie Anderson and Joy Askew. Mr. Metzger, the album's only live musician, is Ms. Ungar's husband. "It's a very, very close affair," Mr. Cohen said, chuckling.

Working with only a few friends allowed Mr. Cohen to relax and, as meditation teachers often say, turn his gaze inward. The sense on many songs is of a personality touching unknown elements of itself. The lyrics combine the earthy details of country music (which Mr. Cohen loves) with an almost biblical oracularity, and they are served by the translucence of synthesized sound. In this way, Ten New Songs evokes that hardest to grasp Zen idea: the oneness of mind and body, earth and heaven, now and then.

Within this context, Ten New Songs furthers Mr. Cohen's well- seasoned themes. "The Land of Plenty," a surprisingly humble protest song, touches on the sometimes apocalyptic political vision he elucidated on the 1993 album The Future. "That Don't Make It Junk" shows the humor of earlier glass- raisers like "That's No Way to Say Goodbye." Mr. Cohen's hobby of rewriting psalms gets full play on the stately "Here It Is," while his literary bent shows in the beautiful "Alexandra Leaving," a reworking of a poem by the early 20th-century Greek writer C. P. Cavafy.

At the same time, Ten New Songs discreetly turns away from the mysticism many seek from Mr. Cohen. Longing remains, but the need to resolve it, or even fully indulge its power, has diminished. For those uninclined to seek Eastern wisdom in Mr. Cohen's music, that sense of serenity can be seen as the wisdom of aging, a singular mind's reflections turned by time toward commonalities. Mr. Cohen himself would probably take this view. He is just as weary of being held up as a saint as he is of being called the ultimate bohemian.

"Heroism is very high maintenance," he said. "After a while, when tremendous energy is devoted to maintaining this hero as the center figure of the drama, the evidence accumulates that this hero is relentlessly defeated. So at a certain point the modest wisdom arises that it would be best to let this hero die and get on with your life."


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