Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Leonard Cohen - New Skin For The Old Ceremony - Album Review [29th November 2011]

Blues Skin For The Old Legacy.

A greater change has come! Firstly, we are welcomed not with a new portrait of the artist, as given with the previous three albums, but with a painting of two characters shown as angelic royalty engaging in a sexual embrace. This image of the timeless mix of the Religious & Sexual gives us boxes to speculate what the title (no longer defined by songs created of...) may mean. In New Skin...it is my opinion that Cohen maintains love firmly in topic, but substitutes his more insular investigation into depression in song for a more heightened perspective in his commentary on romantic destruction and salvation. As age gathers, I understand as the experience of events lead often to a more wise, at least, more rationalised view of their occurrences. With this album, I hear Cohen seeking to include himself in this calmer position, now aged forty.  All the passion and violence still visible in his world, but with himself sat distanced from it, presented from a safe hovel. The use of archetypes on the front cover support this perspective - universal conditions and problems, not an event immediate or in progress. The memory of Dress Rehearsal Rag echoes to me suddenly, but we are from that here.

This attitude translates into the music too. Rather than intimate free-flowing chordal patterns played by an isolated Cohen on a nylon string guitar, here, the performance of the songs is solid, and mostly delivered by a band. The accompanying musical instruments are no longer incorporated from an orchestral tradition (arguably maybe in Leaving Green Sleeves) but played as part of a democracy of instrumentalists in a group - the appearance of improvised-style solos, with the clarinet in Why Don't You Try?, purely defined instrumental sections as in the outro of Who By Fire? and most crucially percussion to emphasise beat, steered from previously by Cohen in Is This What You Wanted? and Lover Lover Lover. It is no surprise that the producer has been substituted once more - this time Cohen co-produces with John Lissauer. Reverb is minimal at best, a tight sound indicative of the time - used to great effect in the funk acts.

Seventh chords populate the sound more regularly than before along with an appreciation for jazz and blues progressions. Although, perhaps, understanding, through a more developed career, his position in a poetic heritage, I believe the change in format here in New Skin... is to more aggressively explore where he may fit musically. With the album that follows, maybe this search needed other angles! Songs like Is This What You Wanted? - Why Don't You Try? -and I Tried To Leave You? all employ blues progressions to emphasise the hurt in the content. Vocally Cohen remains mostly steady and calm in this record, but as he has cadenced in previous records, in Leaving Green Sleeves he wails the lyrics as the song concludes the album. With this last song, his employment of part of the chord progression of the original Green Sleeves reminds me of his treatment of La Complainte du Partisan for his song The Partisan. Making a connection to these older songs I believe is another way he is investigating his position.

This is the first album that contains tracks that I appreciate for their contemplation but find average in sound. A Singer Must Die contains amusing lyrics, Take This Longing speaks honestly and directly of romantic care, but sonically, though they contain the joy of classic Cohen techniques, the premium combinations of chords and melody are absent for me. But then New Skin...  contains three fundamental choices - Chelsea Hotel No. 2, another concise love-letter mixing all the spices of a time perfectly to transport us emotionally - then two searches into the eternal: Lover Lover Lover, a discussion between Father and Son singing for the wisdom - and Who By Fire? a list of clues to a guest arrived at the door, the guest both unknown by a name and known for their defined presence. Although I appreciate the choice to play these songs with clinical precision on this record, these three songs take on much through the blood of live performances, particularly Lover Lover Lover.

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