Bob Dylan has now won a Nobel Prize for his work as a Folk poet, and as I have stated, I see that as a well-deserved acknowledgment of the validity of the medium and the sublime quality of his poetry. But if there is any Folk poet-songwriter who could challenge Dylan as a lyricist, it would be the recently deceased and bitterly missed artistic genius Leonard Cohen. And in memory of this remarkable man, I thought I would pay my respects by reviewing one of his albums.
In the actual Sixties heyday of the folk movement, while most of Cohen’s peers were tilting at political windmills and writing protest songs and social commentaries, he very meticulously focused solely on his own personal story. His songs were introspective and meaningful to the extreme, but they were about his own state of mind and emotional journey, and almost never dealt with the so-called ‘larger’ issues.
It was only in his later career, particularly after his late-Eighties ‘comeback’, than he began to get political in his songwriting. That is why, in reflection of current events, I have decided to review one of Cohen’s later masterpieces rather than any of the justly legendary works from his initial heyday in the Sixties.
In addition to taking on more political themes, Cohen’s voice had changed a great deal since his early years, dropping from a nasal tenor to an extremely deep Basso Profundo, slightly gravelly but still smooth enough to sound pretty. His actual ability to sing in tune was shaky, and for much of this album he doesn’t even try, whispering and intoning his lyrics rather than truly singing. But like Richard Burton in Camelot, his natural speaking voice was so exquisitely musical to begin with that he didn’t really have to sing to create the effect of singing.
This is a concept album dealing with Cohen’s extremely cynical reactions to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent rejoicing. Of course, in reality, all of Cohen’s album are concept albums…people just often don’t notice this because their concepts are generally too abstract to be expressed as linear stories.
There are really only six original Cohen vocal songs on this album, but they represent some of the finest work of his career; indeed, every single one of them tends to be ranked among his all-time classics by fans, making this one of his most consistently outstanding musical efforts.
The title track is the finest look into the motivations of a villainous figure since The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes”. “Waiting For the Miracle” is one of Cohen’s most poetic creations, quietly threatening yet at the same time exquisitely lyrical.
“Closing Time” is a kind of disturbing hoedown, with some of the most cynical lyrics ever written. “Light As a Breeze” is one of the most erotic songs of all time, even if, like “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”, it’s ultimately about far more than just sex.
“Democracy”, the album’s most overtly political song, would sound like a patriotic anthem from the music alone, but the brutally honest lyric is half bittersweet love letter and half scathing deconstruction.
But the most pertinent track in today’s world may be “Anthem”, a breathtakingly beautiful piece that acknowledges the ills and injustices of the world but ultimately comes away with a truly inspiring message of optimism, declaring “There is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in”. Cohen’s songs are very rarely this positive, and indeed, I don’t think he ever wrote anything else as uplifting as this, and it serves to keep the album’s cynicism from sinking into despair the way some of Cohen’s albums do (e.g. Songs of Love and Hate).
The rest of the album consists of two covers (of an obscure R&B tune from the Seventies called “Be For Real” and Irving Berlin’s classic standard “Always”) and a closing instrumental. The covers are both superb, with Cohen’s reading of “Always” being particularly nuanced and fascinating.
As for “Tacoma Trailer”, the first purely instrumental track to appear on any Cohen album, while it loses something by not featuring Cohen’s two most interesting qualities (his lyrics and his voice), it is still a lovely and haunting piece that makes for a satisfying album closer. I don’t know which of this album’s session musicians was playing the keyboard here, but I hope he went on to a long and fruitful solo career, because he definitely deserves it.
Three of the songs from this album made it onto the soundtrack of the movie Natural Born Killers, which helped give the album well-deserved exposure. Still, the songs definitely work best when heard together as a group; as stated, despite not expressing itself as a clear linear narrative, this really is a unified concept album.
Cohen has released a myriad of other masterpiece-level recordings in his career, but I must admit this one was always particularly dear to my heart, particularly “Anthem”, which has gotten me through a number of rough times in my life. And given the state of current events in America today, I think this album, and especially “Anthem”, is more relevant today than it has ever been. And given the loss that the world has experienced with Cohen’s passing, this seems as good a time as any to encourage people to seek out or revisit this glorious masterpiece from a man who was assuredly one of the greatest musical and poetic artists of the last hundred years.