Culturespill » Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen drops new song ahead of Jan. 31 album release

10th January

If you have any idea what Leonard Cohen has been through since emerging from the Zen monastery “Mount Baldy” after years of seclusion there following his 1992 record The Future, then the seething ruminations on age, death and ruin he indulges on the new song he dropped today is precisely what you’d expect of the grizzled, 77-year-old bard. Culturespill told the full story here back in 2008, but here’s the CliffsNotes version: Cohen re-entered the real world to find that the $5 million retirement fund he left in the hands of his long-time manager Kelley Lynch had dwindled to $150,000. With no recourse through which to recoup the money and his estranged manager on the lam, he instead embarked on the much-celebrated world tour documented on two live releases–2009’s Live in London and 2010’s Songs from the Road.

Now he is set to deliver a long-anticipated new studio album, Old Ideas, on Jan. 31. Cohen angered some fans with the unfocused gaiety of his last studio effort, 2004’s Dear Heather, and defended himself by saying that it was meant as a “playful” album to be followed by a collection of more characteristic material–you know, the stuff that makes you want to kill yourself. In keeping with that promise, the song Cohen dropped today is called “Darkness,” and delivers precisely that. He tosses metaphor to the winds and instead dives right into the rough of what’s bugging him here. “I’ve got no future / I know my days are few” he growls in the gruff and whispery baritone Elton John calls his “non-voice.” “The present’s not that pleasant / just a lot of things to do.”

These sound like the words of a man who, now in his late 70s, might have been perfectly content to live out the rest of his life much the way David Bowie does these days–chilling at home with family and friends, savoring the anonymity of walking the streets unnoticed, and feeling absolutely no compulsion to add anything new to his abundant and glittering oeuvre. And perhaps that’s where things might have stood had Lynch not directly linked her American Express card to Cohen’s bank account and sucked it dry to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars at a time.

Poets like Cohen get snarly when critics read autobiography between every line they write, and perhaps rightfully so. But autobiographical or not, “Darkness” delivers precisely the kind of unabashed and strikingly sincere appraisal of the human condition that longtime fans heard on every Cohen record before the hapless and baffling Dear Heather. If “Darkness” is any indication, Old Ideas will deliver much more from where all that came from.

Veteran fans will delight in this track’s more stripped-down approach, a sound Cohen largely has abandoned for the slicker, more ornate production he’s preferred since 1984’s Various Positions and its brilliant follow-up, I’m Your Man. “Darkness” opens with a gorgeous flutter of acoustic guitar that storms with the ominous and theatrical finger-picking style exhibited on some of his most signature tracks, such as “Teachers” from his 1967 debut or “Avalanche” from the incomparable Songs of Love and Hate in 1971. Those earlier records are achievements no artist can ever hope to replicate, but “Darkness” comes damned close, and suggests that somewhere in the consternation of a retirement disrupted by circumstance Cohen turned up a few more of those songs of love, hate and, now, the growing specter of mortality.

You can check out the track here, and also visit his website where you can hear another track from Old Ideas he released in November, a supine piano ballad called “Show Me the Place.”

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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Bill Callahan’s “Apocalypse”: The Transcendent Emergence of a Great Songwriter

3rd January


Achingly gorgeous from first song to last, Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse (Drag City Records, 2011) sounds like the work of some 21st-century Jerry Jeff Walker who spent many hours ransacking his parents’ collection of Van Morrison LPs as a kid.

As on all records Callahan has released under his own name since leaving Smog behind in 2005, these songs color spare musical landscapes with flourishes of flute, piano or fiddle, the elegant but very occasional shuffle of percussion, and hard-bitten lyrics delivered in the kind of off-the-cuff, sort-of-singing-but-really-just-talking-to-ya manner of Walker or Lou Reed.

Taken as a whole, this brief song cycle explores a courageous and curious imagination that looks away from nothing and takes no easy turns. Callahan speaks of the man that “love’s coltish punch” empowered him to become. He discovers “the bee’s nest in the buffalo’s chest.” He watches Letterman somewhere in Australia while undressing American jingoism with ruthless sarcasm, dropping the names of giants like Kris Kristofferson, George Jones or Johnny Cash along the way.

The music throughout Apocalypse replicates the whimsy, beauty and restraint of records like Van Morrison’s exquisite Veedon Fleece, Leonard Cohen’s 1967 debut Songs, or Will Oldham’s masterpiece, I See a Darkness. Just when you think you’ve got Callahan’s number, though, he shifts his tone to a truculent and foreboding rocker like “America!”

Apocalypse is urgently worthy of your attention; the same can be said of every Bill Callahan record to date. It is available for just five bucks at Amazon.com’s MP3 store; or you can pony up for the cause by buying directly from his label here.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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Visions of Johanna: On the Hunt for the Next Great Songwriter

7th May

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen in 1969

“Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can see it in the way she smiles.”
–Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna

Not too long ago, I lived the life of an alienated lover of books and music, awakening from the baffled and brutal slumber of a high school experience largely dominated by the anxious desperation of a yearned-for belonging, a need that eludes so many who navigate those tortured and cliquish halls on the way to a college experience where the freaks find their kind and settle into an initial notion of who they are. I spent hours on end each evening trading banter with a fellow Leonard Cohen lover about the nuanced passages of obscure bootlegs of his, musical diamonds mined from the cluttered shelves of overlooked record shops on Macdougal or Thomspon in the village, a storied neighborhood in the bowels of New York City where Dylan and Van Ronk once ruled as kings of a counterculture whose reverberations we weather to this day.

No, not too long ago at all. I recall pulling off to the side of a rural road in Long Island as Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” played on the stereo, my eyes literally bloating with held-back tears as I reeled in the throes of a gut-wrenching break-up while Cohen sang softly about “The sisters of mercy who are not departed or gone,” how “they waited for me when I thought that I just can’t go on,” who “brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.” With what effortless precision had Cohen identified exactly the note and notion I needed to hear at that moment–a possibility of hope and survival found only in song. I recall hanging on the line in silence with that above-mentioned friend as we listened in reverent stillness to Cohen’s “Let Us Sing Another Song, Boys” from his devastating masterpiece of melancholy, 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. How only our hushed but vaguely audible breaths stood between ourselves and the song, a wild whirlwind of singers twirling the tune around their haunted voices, a wiry wail as undisciplined as it is sincere.

I recall many cold nights driving through downtown Manhattan, a winter rain thrumming the windshield as I struggled again to squeeze into an only parking space in that sleepless town, fleeing my car to wade through the weather with the collar of a worn leather coat popped to keep my wet neck warm on the way to another cappuccino at Cafe Dante, the historic cafe on MacDougal just across the street from a loft Dylan lived in thirty years before. I recall how many nights that weather brought to mind the song Dylan tattooed on the American memory in a voice edged with cigarettes and dust, lines about how “the harmonica plays the skeleton keys and the rain,” or the way “Louise holds a handful of rain tempting you to defy it.”

Dylan in ‘66
Dylan in London, 1966

These are the lines against which any more recent songwriter’s work must be held. They are memories that only the best-made songs call us to connect our lives to, and any aspiring masters of song who shy away from that great challenge are doomed to shrink in the shadow of a history they might otherwise have enriched. When bands like Death Cab For Cutie storm the scene with hailed writers like Ben Gibbard to offer a latest gem by the name of “I Will Possess Your Heart”–the title alone one of far less subtlety and tact than anything either of the aforementioned songwriters would ever even ponder–it is this fertile heritage he confronts. Lines like “How I wish you could see the potential of you and me” or “I know you will find love” read like phantom impostors by comparison, knee-jerk lines scribbled on a napkin in crayon and shoved in the pocket of a shirt that’s later tossed to the hamper and forgotten. It is a difficult but hardly arguable fact that one commits an act of blasphemy in pairing figures like Gibbard, however sincere or loved they may be, with the predecessors that paved the way to their fame all those years ago. Such undue claims to glory suggest that younger fans mistake a catchy tune for lyrical intensity, trading substance for surface in a fit of confused adoration.

This is not to say that those capable of hanging with such esteemed company do not exist in the industry’s current and bountiful crop of songwriters. Songwriters of that magnitude are and must necessarily be few and far between, but they are apparent to those looking hard enough. Joe Henry, for example, who is married to, of all people, the sister of the Material Girl herself, continues to produce one brilliant exhibition of lyrical mastery after another, particularly the trilogy of Trampoline, Fuse and Scar, albums teeming with an abundance of gripping language dressed in Henry’s unique and ethereal jungle of sound. Henry, producer of recent projects by Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello and, most notably, a grammy-winning foray into soul that produced Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me and the resurrection of Bettye Lavette, is a sought-after collaborator for a reason: he has quietly developed one of the most respectable oeuvres music has seen since Tom Waits’s Swordfish/Raindogs/Frank’s Wild Years package in the mid ’80s.

Joe Henry
Joe Henry

“Like she was the fever I wear like a crown,” Henry sings of some sought-after love in “Like She Was A Hammer,” “Like she was the raging flower in the brick yard . . . like she was Roosevelt’s funeral in the street.” Henry plows language to dig beneath the surface of the banter that passes for songwriting in a Death Cab tune, unearthing the raw jewelry of words to convey a far more persuasive sense of the helplessness and need that Gibbard reaches for in his newest single. He so quickly finds and exposes the pumping heart of the song that he hardly leaves you a second to breathe before you’re thrown into an empty room with nothing but your own wounded memories to get you through the hour. “I wonder how you turned out the stars,” Henry sings on the spare and fragile “Lock and Key,” “I hear your laugh / like falling railway cars . . . God only knows how I love you / but God and his ghost / and his roadhouse crew / ran me out of town on a silver rail / free at last and begging for jail.” Now that’s helplessness. That’s desire. That is song.

Others, like Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, bring a maniacal abandon to the song that reduces so many to timid pretenders, singing of “the toothless kiss of skeletons / in summer hail” on his brilliant Wonderful Life LP. “I’m the king of nails,” he concludes as a grunged-up crescendo of guitars and pounding drums blasts the song to hell. Linkous’s talents are evident in the company it attracts. Tom Waits chimes in on “Dog Door,” while PJ Harvey lends her gut-deep wail to the scorching “Piano Fire.” “Every hair on your head is counted,” he whispers on Goodmorning Spider, an album recorded not long after medics literally brought him back from the dead amid a paralyzing overdose that left him nearly crippled, “You are worth hundreds of sparrows.”

Ben Gibbard
Ben Gibbard

The greatest songwriters of a generation do not always fall in our laps as thunderously as they may have forty years ago, when Dylan, Cohen and Mitchell torched the world with a revolutionary fusion of pop and poetry that no one dared attempt before. In an industry far more saturated with underground talent vying for a platform than the likes of Cohen or Dylan had to contend with in their day, too often the finest talent is kept away from the radio and crowded off the stage.

The songs of Henry and Linkous will not be heard on your local FM station today, and they will never pose for the cover of Spin or Rolling Stone. But they are without argument producing work of vastly superior quality to the majority of the sludge that passes for song on the scene today. Do yourself a favor–download a tune or two by either of these geniuses. Then listen to the new Death Cab album. As beautiful and brave as Narrow Stairs may be–and it is most certainly a commendable piece of work by a good band–still I challenge you tell me who the great songwriter is. I’ll be waiting patiently for your answer.