Tuesday 28 March 2017

Cohen pays homage to the twilight

Bono called Leonard Cohen 'our Byron, our Shelley'. He is all that and more on his darkest, most uplifting LP to date

Leonard Cohen 'I love to hear an old singer lay it out'
Leonard Cohen 'I love to hear an old singer lay it out'
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

In 2001, Leonard Cohen said: "When Alberta Hunter was singing many years ago, at 82, I came to New York just to listen to her. When she said 'God bless you', you really felt that you had been blessed. It's wonderful to hear a 20-year-old speaking about love. As the Talmud says, there's good wine in every generation. But I love to hear an old singer lay it out. And I'd like to be one of them."

Now the same age as the aforesaid Alberta Hunter, Cohen has probably fulfilled that ambition. This old singer of some note more than lays it out on his new album, You Want It Darker. (A clue. The hint is in the title. The crack in everything, as he sang about on 1992's Anthem, now lets the darkness in, it appears.)

"It's over now, the water and the wine," he sings. "I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine." Difficult to know whether he is singing to an ex-lover or to God. You Want It Darker has echoes of David Bowie's farewell album Blackstar in the sense that it seems like a goodbye to the planet and us.

"Steer your way through the ruins..." the Montreal mensch, whom Bono called "Our Byron, our Shelley", sings.

This is not such a light-hearted joke along the lines of - to paraphrase Cohen on 1988's Tower of Babel - his friends are gone, his hair is grey, and he aches in the places where he used to play. There is the irreconcilability of death, or at least an ending of sorts, or for a believer like Leonard, a new beginning after that end. "Hineni, Hineni/ I'm ready my Lord," he sings on Traveling Light. (Hineni being Hebrew for "Here I am/ I am present.")

I know it is currently considered blasphemous to utter anything about the blessed Cohen at this late stage of his life other than that this is his greatest album ever - and I do love it - but at times he does come across as an existential, forelock-tugging guru of grump Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave. Not least when he is, however profoundly, however poetically, pronouncing himself: "I'm angry and I'm tired all the time..." "They ought to give my heart a medal for letting go of you..." "The wretched beast has been tamed..." "Vilified, crucified, in the human frame/ A million candles burning for the help that never came." And, not forgetting, "A sucky sweet? I'll be sucking on that exhaust pipe in a minute, with much more of this!" Actually, that last one is from the mouth of Mr Meldrew himself.

Joking aside, Cohen sings so beautifully throughout that you can see why the late Kurt Cobain sang in the Nirvana song, Pennyroyal Tea: "Give me Leonard Cohen afterworld/ So I can sigh eternally."

In the final reckoning, You Want It Darker is a beautiful requiem to the twilight and the ultimate oblivion, over-brimming with resignation. Lest we forget, Cohen did recently tell David Remnick of The New Yorker magazine: "I am ready to die. I hope it's not too uncomfortable. That's about it for me."

The New York Times asked Leonard Cohen a few years ago how does he, an observant Jew, reconcile his faith with his continued practice of Zen. "Allen Ginsberg asked me the same question many years ago," came the reply. "Well, for one thing, in the tradition of Zen that I've practiced, there is no prayerful worship and there is no affirmation of a deity. So theologically there is no challenge to any Jewish belief."

"Zen," he added, "has also helped me to learn to stop whining. All these things have their own destiny; one has one's own destiny. The older I get, the surer I am that I'm not running the show." Perhaps Leonard can have that conversation with God when he finally gets there. Or perhaps not. I love that story of young Leonard in the early 1960s sitting around a paraffin lamp in Hydra in Greece writing poems for his collection Flowers For Hitler and dropping the psychedelic drug, LSD. "I took trip after trip, sitting on my terrace in Greece, waiting to see God," he recalled much later. "Generally, I ended up with a bad hangover."

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