Leonard Cohen Ten New Songs (2001)
Leonard Cohens new album (Ten New Songs) is better than Bob Dylans new album (Love and Theft). Cohen is writing better than Dylan these days. Perhaps he always has, but this is something the monolithic rock press can not seem to express gracefully.
Leonard Cohen is a poet in the traditional sense. Enslaved to the nuances of language, he isnt easily satisfied with the scattershot, the free-wheelin, the vaguely suggestive. Cohen uses language to reveal the human condition, not to throw broadsides at it.
The work ethic is different for the poet than it is for the lyric writer. Cohen has said some of his songs have taken years to write. Dylan goes into a studio and starts knocking songs off until his album is full. In between albums he tours. This is probably the operative mode for almost all songwriters. (Anybody want to throw some suggestions of a hardworking songwriter/poet our way please do). In between albums, Cohen writes poetry. I dont think he plays much guitar.
There isnt an ill-considered lyric on Ten New Songs. The thoughts run deep and all the ideas are tied together. Profundity is offered with no loose ends. Humor is offered without absurdity. There is humor in the pain and pain in the humor. The album is an work of art. A masterpiece, perhaps. In the few places where the tunes let you down, the language makes the tune irrelevant. The musical accompaniment works the same as Bob Dylans band on Love and Theft. In Dylans case, gifted, yet rather faceless, musicians provide blues/pop/folk-imbued backgrounds to Dylans superficially Americana lyrics. His musicians play, but are ruled by an iron fist. The focus in on Dylans lyrics and vocals: when lyrics and vocals fall flat, the whole effort is pointless. The musicians are a bit like anonymous automatons. In Cohens case hes found a one-woman automaton, and its a Faustian match. Sharon Robinson shares the songwriting credits on all the songs (imagine Dylan being so gracious). She sings, and does the drum/key/etc. programming. The result is the same as with Dylans musicians the music never outshines the melodies and lyrics. But Robinsons arrangements are oddly moving. Cohen and Dylan are both hookless writers, in the traditional pop sense, but Cohens melodies are so heartfelt they tend to work as hooks themselves; each escalation or moderation in melody comes as a surprise and a delight. Robinsons vocal harmonies heighten the content impersonally they are automatonish themselves, but dimension is added, Cohens bass-toned stuffiness is disarmed.
On "In My Secret Life," Cohen reveals (among other things) the ineffectualness and the necessity of everybodys secret side, the never revealed depths that people know they have, but which never find expression. The bridge works in a socialistic faux-cliched Sting sort of way: "Hold on, hold on, my brother. My Sister hold on tight. I finally got my orders, Ill be marching through the morning, Marching through the night, Moving across the borders of my secret life."
One wishes that Dylan was capable of writing a succinctly as Cohen does on the opening four lines of "A Thousand Kisses Deep:" "The ponies run, the girls are young, the odds are there to beat/You win a while, and then its done your little winning streak." Dylans much vaunted, crotchety curmudgeon doom and gloom, so beloved by auto-hyped journalists, is idiosyncratically mean-spirited, and seems to stem too much from Dylans own personal dissatisfactions. Leonard is a much nicer guy, and much scarier because his obsessions are intensified by the careful use of his art. Dylan seems to excuse his sloppiness because he thinks it is a reflection of the world. Dylan's sense of self-defeat is almost childish. The parameters of human dimension, which are so lacking in Dylans pinched ("everyday, I feel like Im walking in Babylonian ruins") lyrics, are blind to the way people actually exist. Cohen on the other hand can paint a beautiful broken-hearted love song like "Alexandra Leaving" and leave the listener commiserating with the feelings of both the scorner and the scorned: "Even though she sleeps upon your satin; Even though she wakes you with a kiss; Do not say the moment was imagined: Do not stoop to strategies like this." Its hard to tell who was duped here, but the zenith of heartbreak on "Alexandra Leaving" may be unequaled by anything else you hear this year.
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