Artists Condensed: Leonard Cohen (part 2)

Artists Condensed: Leonard Cohen (part 2)

I'd like to think that there's a special lounge in the afterlife where all the greats go to perform. They'd each have a monthly slot when they would play a combination of their greatest hits and some of their more obscure, intimate songs. It's a comforting thought that one day it might be possible to see Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Lou Reed in a single week. I say all those names in the same breath because they seem to share a common tone. Each one of them eventually adopted a sort of ironic sleaze, capturing the sound of a grizzled bar singer barely mouthing the words past his cigarette. They've all done their part to take the backhandedness out of the idea of the bar stool philosopher, lending a kind of worn elegance to old men singing songs about desolation and murder. Those dark carnival sounds, baritone growls and backward approaches to Revelations-style repentance have been conspicuously alluring to some of the 20th century's greatest men of song. This has become Leonard Cohen's theme song, in a way. I'm not sure if that's really fair because, while it does epitomize the sound Cohen adopted in the 80's and beyond, it only has a few tenuous ties to the work he did in the two decades prior. By the end of the 1970's Leonard Cohen's voice started to change from the slightly nasal, Canadian pretty-Dylan of his youth to the smoky growl of his middle years. Most of the time he augments this with female backing vocals, but when he lets himself stand out front like this it's fairly rewarding. Cohen in the 70's is, in my opinion, at his most interesting. Like a lot of musicians from the 60's, he spent his early days noodling around with the dead end that is American folk music. In the 70's he took on a much broader sound, incorporating jazz, funk, soul and blues. Leonard Cohen was never destined to pick up rock, though. He's always been too literary for that. That's not to say Cohen didn't toe the line between rock and everything else. Behind the doo-wop of some of these songs is the subtle influence of glam. He was always a little too grown-up to run with the likes of T-Rex and too grounded to follow his fellow-in-folk David Bowie into space, but Cohen was always more hip than his haircut. Everyone has covered this song, and I mean everyone. From Bob Dylan to Jeff Buckley to you and me in the shower, sober or drunk, it doesn't matter. One or two have been better than the original, most take the song completely out of context, miss the underlying humor, or otherwise misinterpret its lyrics in search of more or less depth. As for its original form on Various Positions, "Hallelujah" doesn't really attempt to stand out. It's not even the best song on the album. For some reason, this track has resonated with people, perhaps more than anything else Leonard Cohen ever wrote. This track comes way out of left field. Sure, it's still very much a Leonard Cohen song, but it's electronic and full of foreboding. Somehow the man who sang "Suzanne" got mixed up in a blender with Kraftwerk and this song of personal apocalypse was the result. There's also a nice cover out there by REM that takes away some of the darkness, if that's what you want. Leonard Cohen is a music man to the very end. He still plays live shows and later this year the 74-years-young singer will be playing at the Coachella Music Festival. It shouldn't be any surprise that he's the type of guy who'll probably use his last breath to sing. He wrote "Tower of Song" twenty years ago when his first gray hairs started to sprout. Even then, he met his pending old age with a peaceful resignation, saying in so many words that music is what he does and will always do. We're lucky for that. With one more great artist in the "Condensed" column, I'll be back next week to dive into somebody else's discography. Until then, listen well.