Friday, December 10, 2010

Leonard Cohen: Dear Heather (2004)



Leonard Cohen's legacy would have been sealed for all time if his last interesting album was Death of a Ladies' Man in 1977; instead, unlike virtually every other rock performer of his generation, he lost none of his artistic intensity with the onset of middle and old age. If anything, Cohen has grown more daring in his sixties and seventies; it's difficult to imagine many people left who wouldn't name I'm Your Man (released when he was 54) and The Future (58) as stronger efforts than his late '60s folk-rock records. His eleventh album, Dear Heather, is all the more impressive -- issued just after his seventieth birthday, it showcases a bold, fearless performer still at peak, as crafty and innovative and warm as ever.

There is evidence to suggest that The Future, Cohen's 1992 masterpiece, was always designed as his swansong. Unfortunately for him -- and luckily for us -- a financial fiasco involving one of the rock & roll biz's classic characters (the crooked accountant) forced him out of peaceful retirement, spent studying Buddhism, to offer a stripped-down comeback aptly titled Ten New Songs. Offering strong writing and performances but somewhat rote sonics, the record was rapidly upstaged by its followup. Dear Heather is the stronger return for Cohen for precisely the reasons he and his label brushed it off as a minor work -- it is wildly experimental, odd, intimate, and brave. All the carefully crafted songwriterly veneer of Ten New Songs is stripped away to reveal Cohen's darker impulses, sardonics to sex, in tracks that sometimes barely constitute complete songs so much as passing, halfway-formed melodic (and/or recited) thoughts.

On even the relatively conventional songs that occupy this weird and atmospheric record, Cohen generally takes an engagingly off-center approach to singing, either giving the foreground to his omnipresent backing vocalists, duetting with them, or simply reciting them, always willing to let the moody, textured, bizarro lite-jazz carry the song's mood. Without these touches, the classisist take on Byron's "Go No More a-Roving," the sea chanty "Undertow," and the lush semi-rehash "The Faith" could be outtakes from any prior Cohen album. "There for You" is essentially a more mortally wounded version of Leonard circa The Future. Only the mawkish 9/11 lament "On That Day" shies from adventure and it suffers for it.

At its most brilliant, Heather shoves forward while recalling Cohen's melodic gifts as readily as anything on his previous effort. "Nightingale," a Carl Anderson tribute, is among the most beautiful lullabyes in his catalog, finding him content to settle in quietly amidst the flood of pretty his fellow singers and musicians selflessly offer it. But it's the shattering, unbelievably accomplished "The Letters" that will have the most impact -- its assurance manages to hide its complete lack of precedence in Cohen's body of work; it's a hushed, urgent duet with Sharon Robinson flying back and forth between spoken word and aching melody, sneering and cooing in its confidence that Leonard Cohen was right about everything, all along, and we just wouldn't listen. Not soon enough.

Since its release, the album's reputation has rested on its on most unorthodox selections, which amount to elaborate recitations and minimalistic experiments; "Morning Glory" is little more than "The Murder Mystery" hitting an economical (and somehow even stranger, more intriguing) retirement age. "To a Teacher" and "Villanelle for Our Time" set old poems (by Cohen and F.R. Scott, respectively) to Weather Channel music to disorienting effect; aside from "On That Day," they are easily the album's most dubious moments, but the charm and wisdom in Cohen's readings compensate for the musical shortsightedness. Much stronger, and in fact quite difficult to fault, are the title track -- a winding, creeping carnival mood piece backing a nursery chant that suggests both infancy, mental degradation, and sexual perversion all at once -- and "Because Of," which put to rest any notion that Cohen is unwilling to take risks as he enters his fifth decade of performing. "Because Of" is a startling, deadpan evocation of the fantasy life Cohen has repeatedly denied living, here so coldly, humanely, starkly evoked it's difficult not to believe it. The lovers flock to him for his poetry then engulf him, save him; true or not, it's beautiful, frightening, unshakeable.

Dear Heather clearly isn't for everyone. It's almost willfully disorganized, for one thing, closing almost at random with a 1985 live take on "Tennessee Waltz" that, while charming enough, really adds nothing. But it's a different kind of album, a new kind of album, and that's an impressive feat for someone who's been doing this so long. You can think of it more as a book of sketches than a collection of songs; cry about this if you want, but he's given us plenty of the latter. The reason this hits harder for me than Ten New Songs is that, like The Future, it refuses to apologize for the age of its author. It is unabashedly the music of a man who has grown old. But it's also the music of the man who made the bolder, more challenging music of his discography; it belongs much more to the Ladies Man and Recent Songs universe than to that of Songs from a Room and New Skin for the Old Ceremony. I'd frankly prefer to hear more of the nutty, out-on-a-limb stuff now. Keeps all of us young.

Witnessing brilliantly crafted, eccentric new music from a performer of Cohen's age and caliber makes it much more difficult to make excuses for the late-career mediocrity of the likes of Paul McCartney and Neil Young. Of course, Cohen is hardly breathlessly prolific. The last twenty years have brought from him precisely three albums. But more significantly, each of those three is markedly separate from the others but plainly function as portions of the same recorded narrative that began with Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1967. You can hear Dear Heather and be proud of believing in this man and know for certain that as long as he wants to, he will present something glorious to us.

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