Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Leonard Cohen - Dear Heather

Even by Leonard Cohen's singular standards, 'Dear Heather' is a very peculiar album indeed, possibly his strangest since 'Death of a Ladiesman'. His second post-Zen album predictably retains the muted atmospherics, melancholic tone, glacial pace and 80s synth-dominated production values of his last set (2001's 'Ten New Songs'), but it is arguably even more personal, and certainly less mechanised. Less characteristically, many of the songs are mercilessly concise. Cohen's lyrics have often beguiled and entranced through dense layers of mystery and allusion. There are times here when Cohen does not appear to have written enough words to sustain an entire song. The extremely bizarre title track is just five lines long. Instead, much of the beauty here comes through the impact of repetition. His recent work has been characterised by a collaborative process - producer Leanne Ungar and vocalists Anjani Thomas and Sharon Robinson seem to lend an even greater presence to these deceptively skeletal songs. Cohen has also adapted the work of others for many of the tracks here. He's no stranger to this, of course, having translated Lorca for 'Take This Waltz', one of his very finest songs. 'Dear Heather' contains a Byron poem, a poem by Frank Scott, a live rendition of the country standard 'Tenessee Waltz' and a song based on a Quebecois folk song. In many ways, 'Dear Heather' sees Cohen adapting and expanding his reach, whilst coming to terms with the twilight years, and inevitable mortality.
Given its weighty themes and considerable economy, 'Dear Heather' contains some of the most beautiful songs in Cohen's illustrious catalogue. His new setting of Byron's 'Go No More A-Roving' makes for an outstanding opener, a deeply moving exposition of the encroachment of old age. With its wistful arpeggios and cooing backing vocals, it is a real delight. Also, its line 'And the heart must pause to breathe, And love itself have rest', makes for a sly and effective reference to an earlier song ('Love Itself' from 'Ten New Songs'). 'Nightingale' and 'The Faith' sound comfortingly familiar, despite their ethereal atmosphere, and come tinged with finality. Though the lyrics remain poetic, they are disarmingly direct ('Fare thee well my nightingale/'I lived but to be near you?Tho' you are singing somewhere still/I can no longer hear you'). These are the stark and profoundly moving highlights.
There is a similar grace and dignity to 'On That Day', Cohen's gospel-tinged response to September 11th. It's an affecting piece of music, but I'm not sure that its deliberate ambiguities really elucidate that much ('Some people say it's what we deserve for sins against g-d, for crimes in the world/I wouldn't know, I'm just holding the fort/Since that day they wounded New York'). Like many of the songs on Springsteen's 'The Rising', it seems less concerned with making a grand political statement and more with capturing a sense and feeling of loss.
The collaborations with Sharon Robinson could have slotted easily into 'Ten New Songs'. They are subtle, delicate and graceful. 'The Letters' is the more melodic of the two, albeit now characterised my Cohen's hushed whisper and murmur. The melody is more clearly exposed when Robinson takes over the lead vocal herself. 'There For You' is based around the album's lengthiest lyric, although its rhtyhmic and structural simplicity is still its most striking characteristic. Melody here is more elusive, the vocals are thin and watery. Its one of those twisting, elaborate songs that may well require several listens before its mystery can be intimated.
Whilst this review so far has emphasised characteristics familiar to even the most casual Cohen listener, I have yet to pass judgement on some of the more baffling moments on 'Dear Heather'. This is possibly because I've yet to reach my own conclusion. The title track consists of the same lines repeated incessantly ('Dear Heather/Please walk by me again/With a drink in your hand/And your legs all white from the winter') in a chorus of robotic voices. As the 'song' progresses, some of the words are spelled out. I'm not yet sure whether its serious or deeply hilarious. 'Because Of' can be placed more comfortably in the latter category - and its refreshing to see that some of the mordant humour that characterised 'I'm Your Man' making a welcome return. 'Because of a few songs wherein I spoke of their mystery, women have been exceptionally kind to my old age', Cohen muses. 'They make a secret place in their busy lives and they take me there. They become naked in their different ways, and they say, "Look at me Leonard Look at me one last time". Then they bend me over the bed/And cover me up/Like a baby that is shivering.' That's the whole song, but in its brevity it cuts right to the heart of Cohen's power as a poet. Quite simply, nobody in popular music has written so passionately, incisively and beautifully about erotic longing as Cohen. Refer back to the classics - 'Suzanne', 'Hallelujah', 'Ain't No Cure For Love'. Taken together, 'Dear Heather' and 'Because Of' might represent a wry commentary on his past writing, on his role as a ladiesman, and on how women continue to inspire his writing even now.
Cohen's voice is faltering and hushed now - sometimes so quiet that it is barely audible. Many of his parts on 'Dear Heather' are recited rather than sung. This may have served to return Cohen to his formative influences. He was always a reluctant musician, having begun artistic life as a published poet and novelist, and being considerably older than his obvious peers on releasing his debut album. Many find the more recent dated computer and synth backdrops for his poems impede their impact. Cohen has stated that he likes the arrangements and that the quality of the song should always transcend the methods deployed in its production. Fair enough - and frequently his songs have succeeded in doing exactly that. I haven't found the arrangements of his recent albums too much of a problem, although 'Ten New Songs' suffered from being somewhat homogenous. Frequently the stark electronic drums and delicate synths offer the starkest and most intimate setting possible for his best lyrical work. Also, his sense of melody has always been strong enough to predominate anyway. Given his vocal deterioration, melody is often abandoned entirely on 'Dear Heather' in favour of recitations and cantations. 'Undertow', 'Morning Glory', 'To A Teacher' and, most notably, 'Villanelle For Our Time' are the songs that make 'Dear Heather' distictive in Cohen's catalogue, and lend it considerable mystery. The atmosphere evoked here seems to be an open mic night in a smoky jazz bar, perhaps in New York, with Cohen the ageing poet philosophising in spoken verse over muted rufflings. These are unfamiliar and uncompromising, ruminative and unusual.
The real value of 'Dear Heather' becomes clear during the stirring closing moments of 'The Faith' (ostensibly the album's closing track, save for the 1985 live rendition of 'Tennessee Waltz', somewhat inappropriately tacked on). 'Dear Heather' is a powerful and cohesive whole, with a cumulative impact. For the most part, it makes little sense to take its songs in isolation. It's gratifying to hear an album where it is necessary to listen from start to finish, and in sequence, to reap its full rewards. It is reflective, moving, humbling and strikingly honest. Many have stated that it feels like a final testament. At 70, Cohen must be contemplating a retirement from music, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility of there being more to come from his extraordinary mind.

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