CD of the week: Leonard Cohen, Dear Heather


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There are few things more indicative of the changing attitudes to music over the last 20 years than the shift in public opinion about Leonard Cohen. In the early 80s, his stock in America had fallen to the point where his record label would no longer release his albums. In Britain, he was seen less as an unimpeachable giant of rock than as a grizzled-looking punchline.There was much hilarity on The Young Ones whenever his name was mentioned. His oeuvre was dismissed as "music to slash your wrists to" by Paul Weller, a man who knows a thing or two about releasing records that make the listener lose the will to live.

Last month, Leonard Cohen became the first 60s rock legend to turn 70. It is not just his age that makes him unique among his musical peers: no other figure can claim such universal regard. Rock stars who dabble in Eastern religion are routinely sneered at, but when Cohen became a Zen monk - albeit one who appears to be on some kind of flexi-time arrangement - no one scoffed. He avoids the jibes about age that routinely dog his fellow 60s survivors, partly because he was too old for rock'n'roll when he released his first album, and partly because he seems to carry himself with a dignity unmatched elsewhere in the music industry. His work has survived everything, up to and including Don Henley covering it at Bill Clinton's inaugural gala. And if the lyrics of his 11th studio album are anything to go by, he's also one popular septuagenarian with the ladies. "Because of a few songs wherein I spoke of their mystery, women have been exceptionally kind to my old age," he slyly observes on Because Of.

Nevertheless, Dear Heather demonstrates that age brings with it its own problems, not least the fact that Cohen cannot really sing any more. Ravaged by cigarettes, his voice has almost vanished into a husking whisper: the contrast between Dear Heather's closing track, a cover of Tennessee Waltz recorded live in 1985, and the rest of the album is startling. However, he knows what to do with what he has left. His inability to hold a tune means he sounds indifferent during On That Day, his response to 9/11 and its aftermath, yet it fits perfectly because his response to 9/11 is dolefully puzzled: "Some people say it's what we deserve/ some people say they hate us of old/I wouldn't know, I'm just holding the fort." At the other extreme, on The Faith, he recalls, of all people, Serge Gainsbourg, murmuring darkly amid a female chorus. Without his vocals, the song would appear to simply be about spiritual fulfilment, but he lends a weird erotic charge, making the line: "Oh love aren't you tired yet?" sound positively filthy.

Elsewhere, he just gives up and speaks the words or lets his female vocalists Anjani Thomas and Sharon Robinson take over. You can see why but it also adds to a sense of unease about the album. During Dear Heather, it becomes hard to escape the sensation that Cohen is expending all his energy on the words and losing interest in music, not least on Villanelle For Our Time and to a Teacher, which sound less like songs than poetry recitals set to vague jazz backings. This is not entirely out of character. He is famous for joking that he only became a singer because there was no money in poetry, while even his devoted sidekick Thomas has expressed misgivings at the "cheesy" synthesizers with which he smothered some of greatest songs on 1988's I'm Your Man. Here, the arrangements are frequently ghastly: rhythms that sound suspiciously like factory settings on a cheap synthesizer, keyboard noises that sound suspiciously like factory settings on a cheap synthesizer, the oily sax imported from a hotel lobby muzak tape.

The words of Because Of and The Undertow are brilliant, but they gain nothing from being set to music, particularly when that music sounds like it is being played by the house band from Phoenix Nights.

Much of Dear Heather seems retrospective: there are dedications to deceased poets whom Cohen knew in the Montreal of the late 50s and The Faith is adapted from an old Québecois folk song. There is also a distinct sense of directness and finality about many of the lyrics. Cohen declined to do any interviews because, he claims, the album speaks for itself and there is nothing more to add. Add that to the seeming disinterest in the music, and more than one voice has wondered if this alternately beguiling and bewildering album might be Cohen's last work.

For all its charm and lyrical brilliance, you can't help hoping that isn't the case. Not just because it would be nice for him to retire from a universally regarded career on an unequivocal high, but because Dear Heather's best moments suggest that it would be a waste for him to stop now.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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