Thursday, August 6, 2015

Leonard Cohen and His Coat of Muted Colors

The other night I was with some friends and the topic of Leonard Cohen up. It was enough for me to reach into the back of my car and grab my copy of his Live At The Isle of Wight (I still listen to CDs in the car). The earliest years of me being into music were all about metal. Occasionally non-metal would register and Leonard Cohen was one of the acts to pop through that filter.

I wish it was because someone gave me a copy of Field Commander Cohen or something, but it was just his two songs that were on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack (both songs came from 1992's the Future...Natural Born Killers came out 1994). It wasn't a great introduction but, not too long after, I saw Leonard Cohen's episode of Austin City Limits and the idea of the guy stuck with me.

By the time I was in college I ended up with a copy of 1971's Songs Of Love And Hate and that was that. It's pretty remarkable given the time it came out. It was still another four years before Bob Dylan put out Blood On The Tracks but, while not achieving that albums stark confessional tone, it was a far more confident and realized, unpretentious small feat for a career poet who decided to start writing folk songs in his 30's and wouldn't put out his first album until he was 33.

His music is hard to classify. Spotify lists a fairly obvious set of "related artists". Of course Bob Dylan and Neil Young are mentioned even though there's no real similarity. I don't know how they connected Joni Mitchell to him and Joan Baez is only listed because Bob Dylan. Nick Cave wants to be Leonard Cohen but that's hardly a relation. The rest make no sense and I wonder how these results are aggregated.

And of course Jeff Buckley is listed as a related artist. His cover of Hallelujah has been the soundtrack to tragic video montages and American Idol semi-finals for several years. The irony is that his cover is based not on Cohen but on John Cale's cover of the song (both covers omit the same verse). Despite this, John Cale is not listed as a related artist but Lou Reed is. It's like they skipped a step.

All of his "peers" (it's hard to say that when someone is responsible for much peerless music) lack the fundamental darkness and earned world weariness that Leonard Cohen possesses. My friend pointed out how Godflesh fleeced a lot of their ideas off of Leonard Cohen (and they're brilliant too...translation is an art form in itself). Sisters of Mercy obviously took their name from the track on Cohen's first album (which I'm not that huge of a fan of). I think the only act that was as dark and real as Leonard Cohen was Black Sabbath. Wicked World was far more real and honest than anything Bob Dylan did that wasn't about himself. Early Sabbath were direct in their emotions and economical in verse construction. Cohen is direct in his emotions and paints frescoes with his words.

His later albums are great too and his backing band on the last batch of live albums (released in rapid succession to compensate for the financial excesses of bad management) sound like live Sade playing in front of a cathedral. By the 80's his vocal chords filled up with gravel and his voice dropped at least two octaves. He also felt like he earned the right to adapt adult contemporary conventions at a time when "contemporary" included sleazy keyboards and synthesized bass guitar. It was totally different save his words and those two female backing vocalists who seemed to accompany every album.

Lou Reed had a comparable midlife crisis at approximately the same time though he was 8 years Cohen's junior (perhaps appropriate because he's been dead two years...midlife means "mid-life". Maybe there is some relation between them.

Finally, Leonard Cohen is Jewish and the Jewish and Christian traditions figure heavy in his work. It's almost always subversive but somehow respectful. It's as if he finds in those traditions a language for communicating love and heartbreak that cannot be replicated in more modern forms, and that would include Shakespeare. Hallelujah is a lurid re-telling of the story of David and Bathsheba (though it didn't really require that much creativity to read between those lines). Joan of Arc yearns to recover the beating heart of the French Saint. Story of Isaac reads the story of the binding of Isaac that would've resonated with Kierkegaard.

And of course I find it all insufficient but it's because we speak different languages. Related, yes, but different. I feel kinship in the music because it's as if we know the same people and visited some of the same places. He walked out a Zen Buddhist. I, a Catholic.

But it is beautiful and I return to it often. It shouldn't seem so effortless and I know it isn't but a mark of great art involves hiding the seams.

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