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
"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
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
"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
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
"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."