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Hallelujah: it's the return of Laughing Len

William Langley

'I've got no future, I know my days are few," gasps Leonard Cohen on his latest album. It's this kind of cheeriness that has earned the singer-poet the nickname Laughing Len -- not to mention the Prince of Pessimism, the Godfather of Gloom and the Maestro of Melancholy. But, while looking on the dark side has served him well, there are worrying signs that now, at the age of 77, he's getting serious.

To some extent, Cohen's unhappiness is understandable. He has had a tough life, both before and after he became famous. Anyone who has had his entire career earnings embezzled by an allegedly crooked manager, and been given the middle name Norman has plenty to feel resentful about.

In London last week, for the launch of Old Ideas, his 12th studio album, he showed few signs of cheering up. Critics agreed that this was a good thing. One praised the latest work as "a mix of suffering, heartbreak and darkness", and another as an "intimate reflection on love, death and suffering".

Perhaps we should be grateful that he has lasted this long. He has come through breakdowns, bereavements, traumas, court appearances and separations, and sought help through drugs, religion and self-analysis.

One of the reasons he rarely gives interviews is the difficulty of addressing the core conundrum that he had never intended to be a pop singer -- and, having become one, can't give it up.

Today, he is a polished stage performer, trim and dapper, with the look of an ageing mob lawyer in his charcoal suit and fedora. The voice -- once described as "deeper than a Siberian coalmine" -- is now deeper still and roughened by age, but it arguably suits the material.

When Cohen needs some vocal variation, he can call on others, as he did in recruiting The Webb Sisters for a world tour that included a series of mesmerising Irish concerts in the grounds of Kilmainham Gaol, The O2 and famously under Ben Bulben in the gardens of Lissadell House.

What he hasn't got much better at is explaining what these dark, reproachful, caustic songs are really about. Cohen likes to deflect such questions, either by using Yeats's line about "the foul rag and bone shop of the heart", or arguing that the "sacred mechanisms" of songwriting simply don't lend themselves to explanation.

You can understand his reticence when something like 'Hallelujah', an oddball song on a flop album, ends up as a soundtrack to The X Factor.

Most fans agree that the repertoire's central theme is disappointment. It isn't hard to spot where it comes from. Cohen was born in Montreal, the son of middle-class, observant Jewish parents. When he was nine, his father, Nathan, who ran a clothing store, died suddenly.

The boy took solace in books, and especially poetry, and, after leaving McGill University, set out to become a full-time poet.

His first poetry collections, and two early novels -- The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers -- sold poorly. He then headed to New York with the idea of becoming a singer.

The odds were against him. He was already in his 30s, and pop promoters tended to ask: "Aren't you a little old for this?" He wasn't good-looking, couldn't sing very well and had no obvious charisma. The breakthrough came when folk singer Judy Collins agreed to record his composition, 'Suzanne'.

In 1967, The Songs of Leonard Cohen was released, keying perfectly into the genre established by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Unsettling, literate and beautifully phrased, it made Cohen a star.

All these years later, he remains one. Each attempt to retire has been thwarted. In the 1990s, he vanished into a Zen monastery in California, but emerged in 2000. In 2005 he discovered that more than $5m had vanished from his bank accounts. He won a civil suit against ex-manager Kelley Lynch, but failed to recover the money, and was forced to return to work.

However few days he has left, they'll be spent like last week's -- pleasing, teasing and worrying fans. Success, he says, is survival, and he has both ends covered.

Old Ideas is out now on Columbia/Sony

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