When Leonard Cohen announced his first tour in fifteen years, it was only natural to view it for a split second as a cash grab. The tickets weren’t cheap, and the tour came on the heels of Cohen learning that an ex-business manager had embezzled the majority of Cohen’s fortune. It was pretty obvious that his dire financial straits were pushing him to tour, especially since he hadn’t felt compelled to hit the road in support of recent albums.
Once the shows started, though, rapturous reports made every Cohen show sound like a giant lovefest. Adoring fans filled the seats as a grateful Cohen took the stage, and goodwill from both parties met and mingled into something resembling a religious experience for many. So even if Cohen was refilling his coffers, he was giving just as much as he took. That was only fitting. Throughout his career, one of Cohen’s enduring traits has been a feeling of reverence for his subjects, not to mention for the act of singing and writing and creation itself. Even at his most rakish, Cohen always gave an impression of being an equal partner in something sacred and rapturous. Maybe it’s his way with words. Maybe it’s that voice that sounds old and wise enough that it could have narrated the birth of the universe. Whatever the case, fans of Cohen’s work have always detected something strange and different in his work.
The give-and-take of Cohen’s recent tour has already been preserved for posterity on the excellent Live in London, which captured a single night at London’s O2 Arena. Already a cornerstone of PBS pledge drives, Live in London felt like a perfect testament to Cohen’s strengths as a songwriter and performer, so why do we need another live disc? Well, for one thing, a catalog as deep as Cohen’s doesn’t get covered in a single show: Of Songs from the Road‘s twelve songs, only four appeared on Live in London. For another, it’s possible, just possible, that other nights held better performances. Songs from the Road (which comes with a matching DVD of its performances) sets out to collect some of the tour’s most magical moments.
After listening to it, it’s hard to argue. From the nimble and spirited “Lover, Lover, Lover” that opens the disc to the version of “Closing Time” that rounds it out, there’s really not a bum moment to be found here. “Chelsea Hotel”, anchored by soulful organ, strikes a perfect note of weathered nostalgia, and its closing line, “I don’t even think of you that often,” continues to kill. “The Partisan” is a showcase for both Cohen’s vocals (especially the way he growls his way through the French portion of the lyrics) and Javier Mas’s amazing bandurria playing. “Famous Blue Raincoat” strikes with a delicate blend of accusation and forgiveness, aided by Dino Soldo’s light saxophone work. Throughout the disc, it’s striking how Cohen makes you not only reconsider songs you might have dismissed as lesser efforts (such as “That Don’t Make It Junk” from 2001’s Ten New Songs), but also marvel at how songs you’ve heard a thousand times before (such as “Hallelujah”, “Suzanne”, or “Bird on the Wire”) continue to offer something new.
I suppose there are some Cohen fans who cringe at the smoothness of his live sound, its instrumental edges sanded down so that it’s all on Cohen’s shoulders to summon forth the shadows, but that seems a little silly at this point. Cohen hasn’t trafficked in brooding folk in at least twenty years (brooding pop, sure…). If anything, Cohen’s current sound can be seen as a recognition of the openheartedness and humor that’s often been overshadowed by his darker material. With Songs from the Road—which, along with Live in London, comes pretty close to capturing all the Cohen catalog you might be craving—we continue to get a fuller portrait of one of our best and more enigmatic songwriters.