Monday, February 13, 2012

The Case of Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen, age 77, has a new album out and, miracle of miracles, it hit number 1 on Amazon a few days ago. The New York Times has an article on Cohen and the album written in their usual dunderheaded missing-the-point style. I have written about Cohen before in these posts:

Here is a review of the new album Old Ideas that makes a lot of sense.

I have an on-going series of posts entitled "The Case of ..." that are evaluative. Usually they are a look at a composer that I think might be over-rated, such as Bartok. But sometimes I'm asking that a composer be given a closer look because they are more important than is usually thought. This is in that category. I think Leonard Cohen has something unique, something aesthetically significant, perhaps something we need.

Here is a song from the new album:

Here are some of the lyrics:

I caught the darkness
It was drinking from your cup
I got the darkness
From your little golden cup
I said is this contagious?
You said “Just drink it up”

I’ve got no future
I know my days are few
The present’s not so pleasant
Just a lot of things to do
I thought the past would last me
But the darkness got that too

It is passing strange that Leonard Cohen should be Canadian--we have the reputation for being polite, nice optimists. Perhaps Cohen is our Jungian shadow self. Musically there is not a lot to talk about in this song. The basic motif is a falling minor third and the harmony is nothing but a 12-bar blues progression. But bare bones are all he needs to spin out a song. The longest song on the album is "Amen" at over seven minutes:

Leonard Cohen always reminds me of my years living in Montreal, the long dark winter nights, reading a volume of his collected poems. That is what he is, a poet with a guitar. A poet who reminds us, over and over, that existence has a tragic side. The 18th century English writer Horace Walpole once wrote in a letter that "this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel." Cohen reminds us that feeling has certain dangers. If we allow ourselves to look beneath the jolly surface, we may see how sad our existence is. The perplexing irony is that, in so doing, we may feel a catharsis. Listening to Cohen's wise exploration of the difficulties and yes, hopelessness of our lives, we are relieved somehow. Music can be a healing of our sorrows:

Montreal is a town that does not mob its celebrities. Leonard Cohen can visit a coffee shop on The Main--St. Laurent--and not be bothered. But a friend of mine told me of running into him once. They were sitting at a table and noticed Leonard Cohen sitting alone nearby. One woman said, "I just have to go speak to him!" So she got up and went over to his table and said what a huge fan she was. He looked up at her and, gesturing to a chair, quietly said, "would you care for an allongé?" That's an expresso stretched with extra hot water. Perhaps the Darkness can be held at bay with music, courtesy, humility and yes, an allongé...

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