November 4, 2004

Burning for Eternity

Print More

For as long as I can remember, every Leonard Cohen album has been greeted with hissing accusations that this would be his last recording ever. One imagines that critics were already prophesizing Cohen’s demise in 1968, after the release of The Songs of Leonard Cohen. This speculation is probably a result of the doomed atmospherics and macabre themes of his early acoustic years. It didn’t help matters when he released 1988’s I’m Your Man, a fuming paean to narcissistic relationships, failed drug wars and clandestine debauchery. Now Cohen is 70 years old, and certain critics are again hailing Dear Heather as a climactic finale to a legendary singer-songwriter’s career.

This reaction is clearly preposterous and fumbles any accurate synopsis of what makes Cohen’s voice so distinctive and evocative. It is a voice that cannot wilt away: imperturbable, monolithic, sepulchral. With its rasped apathy, it resonates like the word of a god or a devil, displaying no trace of frailty; it seems to have existed since the dawn of time. And on Dear Heather, his first album since 2001’s excellent Ten New Songs, Cohen has deployed this famous faculty with the sort of grace and easiness that defines a classic album.

After the recent and extraordinary releases of his contemporaries (Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Tom Waits), Cohen has seemingly been reinvigorated, compiling his suaveness, self-aggrandizement and cynicism into dense, elaborate fragments. The skewed, steely reggae and exotic ambiance of “Because Of” is minimal but volatile, promising a surge of lust. But it’s all belied by the wit and self-parody of the lyrics: “Because of a few songs / Wherein I spoke of their mystery / Women have been / Exceptionally kind / To my old age.” His unwavering voice is equipped with the deadest of deadpan deliveries, as if he had been singing this song for millennia.

On “Morning Glory,” Cohen’s voice is further degraded and amplified. Spoken-word metaphysics are tape-looped over one another into a mighty and completely inscrutable sound collage. A solitary and blazed bass jumps off the walls like it was in a Beat bar at 5 a.m. It’s claustrophobic, nocturnal nonsense without any appeal to sheen or accessibility. If this sounds like more of Cohen’s hysterical caricatures of apathy and hopelessness, concerned listeners should probably turn the album off by “On That Day.” Eschewing the arrogant jingoism and mournful self-pitying of Iraq War songs by Toby Keith and Bruce Springsteen, Cohen is simultaneously hilarious and poignant, ambivalent and mournful: “Some people say / They hate us of old / Our women unveiled / Our slaves and our gold / I wouldn’t know / I’m just holding the fort.” A wry guitar lingers in the background, and the flourishes of a Jew’s harp make a remarkably unserious song about international terrorism that much more absurd.

But this is fundamentally an album about love and its absence. Cohen is famous for his torch songs, abounding with a fatalism and fatality that no other ’60s-bred songwriter outside of Dylan has used to such crushing, brilliant effect. Here, there is an overwhelming preoccupation with the languorous moments after a relationship when emotions are burned out and minds begin to efface old memories. “O love, aren’t you tired yet?” collaborator Anjani Thomas sings to Cohen. There is not the faintest glint of fury or hysteria. Jazz sax lounges over slowly plucked basses and honeyed back-up singers. Secretive synths brush against trip-hop clicks and sleek R&B percussion. Caribbean organs and lilting whispers flay out, free of direction or motivation.

With this emphasis on reverie comes a formal indebtedness to the past and the personal. Lord Byron’s “Go No More A-Roving” is updated on the first track, making for the second-best Byron song this year (after The Fall). The words of Cohen’s deceased friends and poets Frank Scott and Carl Anderson make an appearance as well. But the most provocative material comes from the country standard “Tennessee Waltz.” Recorded live, it bears no similarity to the unexpected exhilaration of versions by Sam Cooke and Patsy Cline. Instead, Cohen sounds like a former lover devoid of all ambition and pleasure, with the sad monotone of the best performances by Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Forlorn and forgotten, his voice nevertheless perseveres, as if it has lived through quite a few lifetimes already and might as well stick around for a few more.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt
Sun Arts & Entertainment Associate Editor