Thumbing through Leonard Cohen’s back pages.
Dateline: February 17, 2012—Leonard Cohen at 77 is a bona fide pop star. His new album, Old Ideas, held the no. 1 spot in Amazon sales the week of its January 31 release date. As of today, it is no. 3 on the Billboard album chart, his first Top 10 appearance in his 45-year musical career. Of note is the fact that the album doesn’t succumb to the latest trends in popular music. Leonard Cohen remains Leonard Cohen. The country’s music buyers have elected to meet him on his terrain.
I considered writing on Old Ideas, but there already is plenty of cyber- and real ink on it. Instead, I decided to use its arrival to travel through Cohen’s back catalogue and cover an album that seems to have fallen by the wayside: the offhandedly titled Recent Songs (1979). Cohen himself doesn’t appear to place much significance on the recording. Only one of its songs is on The Essential Leonard Cohen (“The Guests”), and one (“The Gypsy’s Wife”) made it to the set list of his 2009 tour.
Recent Songs came between the Phil Spector-produced Death of a Ladies’ Man, reviled in its day and now assessed more politely, and 1984´s Various Positions, which Columbia declined at the time to release in the United States (ironically, the album contains “Hallelujah”). After the critical flogging he endured for Death of a Ladies’ Man, Cohen retreated to a familiar sound on the next album. Instead of Spector’s sonic pyrotechnics, the songs on Recent Songs are clothed in acoustic guitar, violin, Jennifer Warnes’ exquisite background vocals and, a new instrument for Cohen, oud.
These are songs from an Athens taverna, an Andalusia café, a broken-down theater on some Paris side street. Cohen’s voice had not yet developed the cellar-deep tone of Isaiah that listeners first heard on I’m Your Man. Here, it still occupies the middle range and murmurs leisurely and stoically through the clouds of saloon smoke.
The lyrics are among Cohen’s most ornate. He employs the tropes and phraseology of English Romantic poetry (The Rose I sickened with a scarlet fever / The Swan I tempted with a sense of shame) and translations of Middle Eastern verse (And here they take their sweet repast / While house and grounds dissolve). (In the sleeve notes, he writes that Attar and Rumi influenced the imagery of several songs; remember, the album came out in 1979, well before Rumi became the New Age flavor of the month.) The writing, consequently, has more overt ties to his previous life as a literary figure. Some track titles are closer to poem and short story titles than song titles (“The Traitor,” the aforementioned “Gypsy’s Wife,” “Ballad of the Absent Mare”).
Wedged in with the original material is “The Lost Canadian,” a 19th century song from north of the border that Cohen sings in French, accompanied by a mariachi band. It’s a member of the small and idiosyncratic group of cover songs that Cohen has scattered across his albums, a group that includes “The Partisan,” a World War II resistance song which he continues to perform, and Irving Berlin’s “Always,” which Cohen and his musicians turn into eight-minutes of simmering R&B.
“Ballad of the Absent Mare” closes Recent Songs and is one of Cohen’s best. Befitting the title, it’s a true ballad, his only purely narrative song, yet filtered through its writer’s poetic sensibility. Inspired by an old Chinese text, the song is about a marriage cast as the story of a cowboy searching for his fugitive horse. The details are sharp (And she steps on the moon / When she paws at the sky) and poignant (And she comes to his hand / But she’s not really tame / She longs to be lost / And he longs for the same).
The final lines are So I pick out a tune / And they move right along / And they’re gone like the smoke / And they’re gone like this song.
With So I pick out a tune, Cohen seems to be implying that he will continue to work at his craft. We have been the lucky beneficiaries.