Saturday, November 25, 2017

New Skin for the Old Ceremony - Leonard Cohen

New Skin for the Old Ceremony
Leonard Cohen
Columbia KC 33167

As I often do when one of my musical idols dies, I listened repeatedly to my Leonard Cohen records last year following his passing.  My favorites have always been the first two, "Songs of Leonard Cohen" and "Songs from a Room," but pulling this record out after not listening to it for at least a decade, I was struck by how good it sounded.  I ended up playing this and his final record "You Want It Darker" the most and a year later I'm still playing them.  I don't have the will to blog about his final record so I'm doing this one.  When I saw Cohen during his last tour, I had a feeling I'd never see him again.  Although he delivered a powerful and lively show, I could perceive his fragility.  In contrast one of the things I like about this album is that it is so robust and full of vitality.  It sounds like a man at the peak of his powers.  This is evident right from the start with "Is This What You Wanted."  Cohen delivers the humorous lyrics with vigor and the bass-driven music sounds almost funky particularly when the soulful back up singers join in.  "Chelsea Hotel #2" is a return to the folky introspective sound of Cohen's earlier albums.  It is deservedly one of his best known songs with its striking imagery and confessional nature.  I would probably like it better if Cohen had not revealed that it was about Janis Joplin.  To me that makes it seem kind of tawdry like he was violating her privacy.  Plus I think it diminishes the poetic power of the song by grounding it in a specific reality.  It is still a brilliant song though.  The album regains energy with "Lover Lover Lover" which has a dynamic rhythm track and an urgent vocal from Cohen.  "Field Commander Cohen" features self-referential lyrics full of evocative language.  It is one of my favorite cuts on the album and its power is enhanced by a sensitive arrangement that makes excellent use of strings.  "Why Don't You Try" has a slightly jazzy feel to it that complements Cohen's warm, relaxed vocal.  Side two opens with "There is a War" which is a turbulent song with cutting lyrics.  The music has an insistent rhythm that heightens its impact.  "A Singer Must Die" is another self-referential song that features an impressively nuanced and sensitive vocal from Cohen that really gets to me.  "I Tried to Leave You" also features a gripping vocal from Cohen backed by a subtle jazz-tinged musical arrangement.  Cohen may not have been a technically skilled singer, but he knew how to put over a song as good as any torch singer.  "Who By Fire" has some of the most fascinating lyrics on the record supported by a compelling melody that makes it one of the stronger tracks on the album.  "Take This Longing" is one of my all time favorite Cohen compositions.  The lyrics are extraordinarily beautiful and Cohen's vocal gives me chills.  It is all the things I loved about Cohen: intimate, emotional, incisive, honest and romantic.  Truly a great song.  It would be a majestic conclusion for the album but Cohen had the winning irreverence to finish with "Leaving Greensleeves."  It features a raw and gritty vocal from Cohen as he delivers sly, humorous lyrics about the end of a relationship.  I love the cynical line "I told my lies to lie between your matchless thighs."  Now that's poetry, ha-ha.  This is such a wonderful album.  Every time I play it I find myself missing Cohen even more.  He was one of my favorite artists and I'm so grateful for the albums he left us.  They will always be among my most treasured records.  Recommended to fans of Joni Mitchell.