Leonard Cohen Gets Caught
with a Cockeyed Grin
By Charles Taylor
In a pop-music year overwhelmed by the trivial, the best new albums seem
to be coming from older performers who have some living under their belts.
I'm thinking of Charlie Rich's Pictures and Paintings, Jimmy Scott's
All the Way, and -- though it's very different from those two -- The
Future, A Record by Leonard Cohen (Columbia), which is, if not his best
album, certainly his warmest and most expansive.
Twenty-five years after his recording debut, Cohen, the poet-turned-folkie
singer-songwriter, has become a cabaret éminence grise idolized by
many of today's young alternative rockers. Yet he's still stereotyped as
(his words) "that melancholy chap you can depend on to depress your friends."
Actually, Cohen's performances -- including those on his new album -- now
offer the polished, easy pleasures of a smooth old pro. The most distinctive
features of his songwriting, drollness and sensuality, have deepened over
the years. It was a joke when on I'm Your Man's "Tower of Song" he
sang, "I was born with the gift of a golden voice." Now, maybe because he's
become more and more a cabaret singer, his low, rumbling, velvety croak is
a supple and expressive instrument.
On the phone last week from New York, Cohen was pleased when I told him
that I thought his work has always shown a great sense of humor. But what
about this new confidence in his singing? "I think it is true that the singing
has developed or unfolded so that the material can be delivered in a way
that's agreeable to the ear. I think on some of my earlier records, one was
ready to forgive the voice from the point of view of vulnerability or poignancy
or urgency. But I think that in the last two or three records, there has
been a harmony between the voice and the material and the music that's very
agreeable to me."
Cohen gets more of a chance than ever to play with the pitch and phrasing
on The Future, which boasts the best arrangements he's had. Less
techno-rock than I'm Your Man (his last album), the songs range from
the Ennio Morricone--like spaces of "Waiting For the Miracle" to the languid
lounge sound of "Be For Real" to the drunken pseudo-Western swing of "Closing
Time." Synths have the fluidity that they do on a New Order or Pet Shop Boys
record. He still employs angelic-sounding female back-up singers, as if they
were able to deliver the sweetness he feared his own voice could never
And longing for the unattainable, at least where romance is concerned,
remains one of the constants of Cohen's songwriting. He may affect the guise
of a battle-scarred survivor of the sex wars, but underneath there's a romantic
who hasn't given up the good fight. If there's such a thing as a world-weary
hopeful, Cohen is it.
That stance would be unbearable if he weren't so droll. Every time he
uses religious imagery in a love lyric, you can be sure it's tied to the
erotic. In the new album's lovely "Light As The Breeze," he sings, "She stands
before you naked / You can see it, you can taste it... You can drink or you
can nurse it / It doesn't matter how you worship / As long as you're down
on your knees." Who else could make kneeling to give your lover head sound
both lascivious and wistful?
Throughout The Future (which was produced by a variety of people),
Cohen's voice is mixed right up front. So as it pours out of the speakers
all sawdust and honey, it sounds as if he were sidling up beside you, taking
you into his confidence. The effect is very seductive, especially on the
cover of Frederick Knight's "Be For Real." The beery, bleary "Closing Time"
is Cohen-style honky-tonk, powered more by guitar than piano; it lurches
from the drunken exhilaration that makes you feel everybody is your friend
to those last-call dregs when your tongue can get a little mean. "My very
sweet companion / She's the angel of compassion," Cohen sings, adding, "and
she's rubbing half the world against her thigh." The song moves to the sway
of Bob Furgo's woozy violin, the sound of a sozzled man in the middle of
the dance floor, rocking on his heels but somehow staying upright.
But the focus of this record isn't so much the erotic as the political.
You could say The Future is about a man who's sick and tired of being
sick and tired. It's as if after stewing in disgust over our demoralizing
social and cultural morass, Cohen realized that the powers that be wouldn't
always be holding all the cards. When he sings about "the feel that it ain't
exactly real /or it's real but it ain't exactly there," he captures the unreality
of the Reagan/Bush era.
"I think the acknowledgment of the gravity of the situation is absolutely
necessary," he says, "to repair the gulf, the divorce between the public
statement and the private statement. There is this public world going on
which does not seem at all to address this sense of catastrophe that we all
feel in our hearts. I've been accused of being grim and depressed for decades,
but now when I present my position, the eyebrows do not raise quite so
"I do think the flood has come, and I'm asking, 'What is the appropriate
behavior in a catastrophe?' Y'know, when you're holding onto your orange
crate, and the others guy's going by on his broken spar, is that the moment
to say, 'I'm a conservative, I'm a liberal, I'm for abortion, I'm against
abortion?' Those positions seem irrelevant given the gravity of the
The Future catches this unreal era as it's crumbling, and it dances
in the rubble. "There is a crack in everything," Cohen sings at one point,
"that's how the light gets in."
God knows, with song titles like "Anthem" and "Democracy," there are passages
where the writing risks being obvious, even corny (the refrain of "Democracy"
begins, "Sail on, sail on / O mighty ship of state"). But damned if these
songs don't work, maybe because there is something corny about democracy
and Cohen, by being plainspoken surmounts it.
These songs also work because their hope comes out of something darker.
The Future picks up where I'm Your Man's "Everybody Knows"
left off. That song was a darkly funny acknowledgment of just how bad things
were ("Everybody knows that the ship is sinking / Everybody knows that the
The title track of The Future goes it one better. This is a sly
take on the easy temptations of power as a means of surviving in rotten times,
and it carries those temptations to their absurd and logical extreme ("Give
me back the Berlin Wall / Give me Stalin and St. Paul / I've seen the future,
brother: it is murder").
"Waiting For the Miracle" (written with Sharon Robinson) is about the
bitterness of being handed the empty promise that things will get better.
Cohen sings, "Nothing left to do / When you know that you've been taken /
Nothing left to do / when you're waiting for a crumb." What matters is what's
beneath the toughness in his voice, the weariness of a man who's stored away
the memory of each indignity and cruelty but who knows the futility of
In this context, "Anthem" and "Democracy" aren't just cheesy, upbeat "We
the people" tub thumpers. They insist that the past can't be forgotten, and
that, if people are at last emerging from their complacency, they've waited
till catastrophe was imminent. Each line of "Democracy" counts the cost paid
for sleepwalking through recent history: "Those nights in Tiananmen Square...The
fires of the homeless, the ashes of the gay." Even the deceptively simple
chorus, "Democracy is coming to the USA," has its irony (it's arriving 200
years after the fact).
And the arrangements aren't brassy or boastful. In the background of
"Democracy," there's a synthesizer (played by Jeff Fisher) made to sound
like a solitary pennywhistle, something cheap and battered but still
sweet-sounding. It's a reminder that the democratic ideal isn't any anonymous
blast but something as simple -- and complex -- as the sound of one voice.
"It's reduced," Cohen says, "to the real basic, unsplittable atom, which
is the individual in whatever condition he is, wheezing, broken, sick, or
triumphant, saying 'Me too. This depends on me.'" Or, as he sings, "I'm junk,
but I'm still holding up this little wild bouquet."
The Future ends with "Tacoma Trailer," an instrumental that serves
as a moody, peaceful coda. But it's the previous number, a boozy eight-minute
version of Irving Berlin's "Always," that's the record's fitting capper.
The trio of background singers (Peggy Blue, Edna Wright, Jean Johnson) shout
encouragement to Cohen and to the other players; every band member has a
moment in the spotlight (Jim Cox on piano and Dennis Herring on electric
guitar particularly shine). And Cohen seems to be in a contest with them
to see whether they can keep up with the sudden whims of his phrasing, the
hilarious basso notes, the impulsive stretching out or speeding up of lines,
the semi-salacious improvised lyrics. The track is democracy in action.
"It was a great party. I began the session with the preparation of a cocktail
I invented in Needles, California, called the Red Needle. I prepared vats
of this cocktail, and the session began, and we couldn't stop playing the
song. The version that's on the album just happens to be the shortest version.
The other ones took the whole length of the tape. But we refused to stop
playing it, and this version is the only one we could use."
The track, however, is something more. Cohen turns his big-hearted,
weak-in-the knees vocal into a "little wild bouquet" to the audiences who
have been loyal to him for 25 years. It's an invitation to laugh at a shared
joke. Here's the man who's earned the sobriquet "maestro of gloom" being
just as amusing and charming as his fans have always known he could be. If
this record gets the attention it deserves, that party could get pretty