Sunday, 15 January 2012

Leonard Cohen - Ten New Songs - Album Review [15th January 2012]

From The Mountain.

It was nine years between Cohen's 'The Future' and 'Ten New Songs.' From 1996, he was ordained as a monk called Jikan (silent one) at Mt. Baldy where he practiced at the Zen Centre there. Given that Cohen works on his songs for long periods of time (a concept this album title jokes on, among other things), this particular duration of organised spiritual practice could seem to hold influence, and does. 

Where as 'Various Positions,' 'I'm Your Man,' and 'The Future' seem to be developments around his revised synthesised aesthetic, albeit with different producers, this sound I find quite removed from those. This is due to a great deal of influence from Sharon Robinson, (who has worked with Cohen from 'I'm Your Man.') She is credited with co-writing and producing and playing all instruments on Ten New Songs (except the distinct electric guitar provided by the long-term musical collaborator Bob Metzger.) She is also included in the album cover photo, in equal proportion to Cohen - both looking in the same direction, correctly articulating how these two minds have worked hard and with love excel in an audio form of Ikebana. The fact the songs were recorded at home studios also adds a noticeable change in method and capture.

Another great influence on the sound comes from a concentrated spiritual development in Cohen. From watching Armelle Brusq's film 'Mount Baldy. Spring 96,' two of the constant values of Cohen's practice on Mt. Baldy were precision and modesty. Qualities certainly not absent of Cohen's interests in some of his previous records, but here taken to a fine extremity.

The keyboard sound throughout never deviates beyond a lush soft pad, the 'attack' always gentle. Synthesised piano melodies are performable with one finger, akin to Tower of Song from I'm Your Man. The drums are now programmed, using parodies of drum-machine sounds (the 'bongos' in By The Rivers Dark are ridiculous), playing neatly looped phrases, seeking no attention, just holding the song as it moves along.

As for vocal direction, you will not find Cohen wailing away here, or indeed coming anywhere close to his previously pepped pro/antagonists. My friend Sk£tch spoke to me from his study of Krishna, that to speak softly was important to his practice for avoiding delivering the ego and its arrogance, allowing G*d's voice room, that He could be heard stronger through this way of being. This seems consistent with Cohen's vocal articulation on Ten New Songs, singing deeper than ever, softly, and almost to a whisper (although I suspect age, and an absence of more professional performances will have contributed to this older voice.) I hear a sense of support in the lyrics from Love Itself - 'I try to say a little more, love went on and on, until it reached an open door, then Love itself, love itself was gone.' Here, the separation of the frame love moves within to the character singing is similar to the idea of G*d's space around the words of a speaker. Throughout, it's as if Cohen would show a the words/concepts symbollically as the songs played, rather than him as an ego being there. Strange after years of more attention seeking displays, that he might find this preferable in his music making now. Maybe next he could just give his songs to another singer, perhaps Anjani, to sing instead?

On Ten New Songs he shares much of the lead sound with Sharon Robinson, who compliments the mood, also singing with a reserve only the foolish would describe as simple. Even in her showboat song, 'Boogie Street,' (another nod to Cohen's appreciation of jazz) her blue stylings are succinct and no more a flourish than a tiny amount of green placed upon the plate of a steak meal in a desired restaurant. 

By exhibiting these songs bare-boned like this, it allows their true nature to be observed, absent of stylistic distraction. Obviously sound itself must have an aesthetic quality, but by using out-dated sampling and satirising the attempt at mimicking live instruments (that saxophone for example in You Have Loved Enough!) Cohen and Robinson portray the choices of sounds with dramatic irony, like watching The Wizard of Oz for a second time, and knowing the true power against the false power of Oz. Drawn to focus on the mathematical relationship of the progressing chords, melody lines, and lyrics - these angles demonstrate their intention with crystal clarity. One example, I draw from the masterpiece (I do not use that word lightly,) Alexandra Leaving, is in the two interpretations of the stanza - 

"Even though she sleeps upon your satin
Even though she wakes you with a kiss 
Do not say that moment was imagined
Do not stoop to strategies like this"
In its first portrayal in the song, the chord sequence falls downwards, with resolved chordal relationships, a perfect cadence finishing. This lends the content of the lyrics a finality and order. However, in its second performance in the song, it is treated with an alternative chord sequence, rising up to an unresolved minor sixth chord first, and then finally with an imperfect cadence. This reinvents the words as the cries of longing, and finally as those of someone who longed. This kind of attention to the arrangement of the chords reminds me of another eastern art, Feng Shui. By placing the shapes in the right place, spirits flow through in a certain way. 

Throughout this record there are so many examples of this kind of organisation. Each song, for this, is distinct and complete.

Lyrically this album is more direct too. Key words evaluated through the language equivalent of simultaneous equations. For example, Love (that dangerous lyrical bermuda) is treated to a modest attempt to qualify part of it's nature - 'That I am not the one who loves, it's love who seizes me.' In Alexandra Leaving, 'And you who had the honour of her evening, and by that honour, had your own restored.' A marvelous journey for the word honour through that sentence. 'And the Dealer wants you thinkin', that's it's either black or white, thank G*d it's not that simple in my secret life' - A spectrum of interfering concepts allowed to breathe in the mind here in In My Secret Life.

This album holds a special place for me. I connect very much with the articulation. Not because I have it, but because my faith towards it helps me with understanding my more muddled nature, calms the manic, and brightens the room from depression. The song A Thousand Kisses Deep paints beautifully accurate portraits of times I believe I have seen. I actually prefer the verses chosen for the poem of the same title, because the humour and depths of loss are more extreme in the poem. Love Itself and You Have Loved Enough pair beautifully to bridge thoughts from thinking what you are controlling, to what bigger waves are controlling you. It reminds me of a Cohen quotation from the movie 'I'm Your Man,' and linking with the song A Thousand Kisses Deep - 'you abandon your masterpiece, and sink into the real masterpiece.'

Then, of course, Alexandra Leaving, deserves an dissertation unto itself. A document of profound spiritual importance. For me, there is certainly a life before and after this song. And although not so impacting, In My Secret Life hangs like an important locket containing the image of a forever friend. The separate nature of this record makes it hard for me to put alongside his others - strangely, more so than comparing his guitar-lead and synth-lead work. It is the philosophical connection that bubbles it.

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