It’s tempting to draw parallels between the 1990s poetry of the late Allen Ginsberg with Leonard Cohen’s music over the past three years. Late in his life, Ginsberg’s 1990s poetry was still as impassioned and defiant as ever, but there was a simplicity creeping in, as he started to employ more whimsical, simpler structures into his work (in some cases, nursery rhyme rhythms), his words much more direct than they’d ever been, and near the end of his life, when asked for advice for young people, the first thing he always said was, “Be nice to your mother.” Cohen, a devout Buddhist as Ginsberg was, turned 70 this past September, and has begun to sound just as simple and direct in his music. He readily admits that the depression he felt in the past is now gone, and despite the tough times the world is going through right now, he couldn’t be happier. Gone is that prophet of doom/ladies’ man that enthralled and seduced generations; in his place, a great singer/songwriter/poet looking back on life, while at the same time, possessing the good humor of an eccentric Zen monk. Artistically speaking, Cohen has descended his Tower of Song, opting instead for the cozy confines of a humble hermitage.
Still, and this is where Cohen’s brilliance comes in, his new music keeps getting more and more bold. After 36 years of songwriting (including eleven studio albums), and despite taking his own sweet time between albums, Cohen continues to write and record with a startling consistency, and Dear Heather, his most complex and adventurous record to date, is no exception. He addresses old friends and mentors, he reminisces about the ladies in his life, he muses about the effects of 9/11, and musically, he strips down the arrangements to their most basic forms, as you hear touches of traditional folk (he even plays a Jew’s harp at one point), jazz, and his trademark balladry.
Cohen is obviously returning to his poetic past on the record, something you instantly hear on “Go No More A-Roving”, a musical adaptation of the Lord Byron poem of the same name. He also dedicates three songs to three notable Montreal writers; the aforementioned song to Irving Layton, “To a Teacher” to the late A.M. Klein (the lyrics lifted from Cohen’s 1961 book The Spice-Box of the Earth), and “Villanelle For Our Time”, a haunting performance of a poem by Cohen’s McGill University professor F. R. Scott, featuring a somber reading by Cohen, his voice deeper and more sonorous than ever. “Morning Glory” evokes the Beat jazz poetry of the late 1950s, as Cohen describes the transcendent feeling of seeing the sun rise: “No words this time…Is it censorship?” Cohen asks, “No, it’s evaporation.”
Cohen’s 1977 album might have been called Death of a Ladies’ Man, but at his age, the fire still obviously burns. On the striking “Because Of”, he says of all the women who have been in his life, “They become naked/ In their different ways/ And they say,/ ‘Look at me, Leonard/ Look at me one last time,’” adding facetiously at the end, “Then they bend over the bed/ And cover me up/ Like a baby that is shivering.” “The Letters” is a tale of love that goes unreciprocated until it’s too late (“I gave you my address/ Your story was so long/ The plot was so intense/ It took you years to cross/ The lines of self-defense”), while “There For You” is one of Cohen’s best love songs in years, and one of his darkest, as the overall tone is regretful, and even bitter (“I walk the streets/ Like I used to do/ And I freeze with fear/ But I’m there for you”).
After the album’s midway point, things get interesting, and even a bit surreal. “Dear Heather” is another love song, with simple, beautiful, instantly memorable lyrics that Cohen is such a master at (“Dear Heather/ Please walk by me again/ With a drink in your hand/ And your legs all white/ From the winter”), but it’s recited in an almost trancelike state, over a schmaltzy organ/trumpet arrangement, as the reading sounding both obsessive and whimsical the more it’s repeated, and what begins as a sultry come-on, in the end, comes off as a bizarre, dryly humorous, surrealist experiment. After taking on an avant-garde sound on the title track, the album takes a sharp turn in the opposite direction with the cheerful, lilting, traditional folk arrangement of “Nightingale”, and the beautiful, elegiac “The Faith”. And if that weren’t enough, the album ends with a live 1985 recording of a cover of the country/western standard “Tennessee Waltz”.
Completely fascinating from beginning to end, Dear Heather rivals Cohen’s classics from over a decade ago, 1998’s I’m Your Man and 1992’s The Future, and despite the wide variety of musical styles on the record, there’s a remarkable consistency to his compositions. Cohen’s ubiquitous background singers are there, as always (his partner Anjani Thomas sings on eight of the record’s twelve tracks), and there’s still the slick production, but unlike past albums, it’s not overly polished, and there’s even the odd saxophone solo, which Cohen continues to shamelessly employ, bucking all trends. The sly nihilism of “Everybody Knows” and “The Future”, and the passion of “Ain’t No Cure For Love” and “Closing Time” have been replaced by more contemplative, relaxed musings; like Ginsberg, Cohen keeps things simple, and cuts right to the chase in his lyrics. On the 9/11 song “On That Day”, Cohen states simply, “Did you go crazy/ Or did you report/ On that day/ They wounded New York,” the word “report” meaning, “To present oneself: report for duty.” Did you change the way you lived your life after that grim wake-up call, are you getting the most out of life? Leonard Cohen certainly is, and as a result, his music is the most vibrant it’s been in a dozen years. We should all be so cool when we’re septuagenarians.