Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Leonard Cohen - Recent Songs - Album Review [12th December 2012]

Just Another Gypsy.

Two years following, a further collaborative producer (Henry Lewy) later, and Cohen is returned; with music born more of his own creation, than the music of the collaboration of 'Death...'  After the shocks of that previous record, it would be tempting to assume that this record returned to the shell of old formulas. Swinging a quick ear to catch the familiar nylon-string guitar and traditionally raised (further deepened) Cohen voice in the mix, a recognisable order seems to have been retrieved, but, I find that Recent Songs shows Cohen braving new ground with no trepidation brought from the trauma of facing a gun.

The idea I keep returning to when I hear these songs is 'confidence'. It is impressive to me that, so shortly following his previous effort, where he seemed so desperate and wild, Cohen can reach such calm whilst still engaging so emotionally. Concluding this record with Ballad Of The Absent Mare, Cohen shows an interest in a Buddhist description to enlightenment. We know this investigation continues in albums to come, but perhaps this steadiness of attitude for Recent Songs, in part, comes from his interaction with this investigation.

Confidence to let the instruments sit naked in the sound: Although atmospheric production on previous records has directed his listener to his emotional intentions, like that of a conversational partner not allowing escape from the dialogue, here in Recent Songs, for the dryer production, the songs sit like books on a shelf, ready to offer to those who are generous to read. That trust in time to find their value is now the attitude.

Confidence to let others sing the songs too: For the first time, I believe we have a collection of musicians singing these songs not just Cohen. On this record a gypsy-style of performance is encouraged. Thoughtful mixing keeps the words and chords moving the song, but other instruments, particularly the inclusion of Hakopian on violin, play independent interpretations of the song's journeys alongside each other. This tradition of performance defines ensemble playing very differently, and for this, a great community of spirits is experienced within each song. With each listen, you could follow a different tour guide. This is true throughout the record but prominent examples of this style are shown in The Guests, The Window and The Gypsy's Wife, where the violin continues a solo for a verse. The oud, too, performs linearly, disregarding pairing parts to the sections of a song, but instead, hunting for the right technique to express itself, like a person reacting piece-by-piece in a conversation.

Confidence to bring this new-found musicality across into previously existing staples: Although Cohen has often been accompanied by female backing singers in previous records, here is the first time we hear Jennifer Warnes vocal on a Cohen record. Warnes brings her own creative interpretation to accompanying Cohens vocal, no longer taking the place of a symbolic sound. In The Guests the backing harmonies slide across one another, fighting for attention, like fish swimming a tight stream. In The Smokey Life Cohen's lead verse lines are tightly harmonised at length for the first time. In The Window she blossoms with each chorus before singing as a rich equal in the last stand of the song.

I believe it is Cohen, with Warnes, from this album which shows the clearest inspirations for Damien Rice's songwriting and his backing singer, Lisa Hannigan's vocal styles and arrangements. Run The Smokey Life alongside Rice's I Remember and Hannigan voice resembles Warnes' very much. Also, Rice's songs Cheers Darlin' and The Animals Were Gone sit in the school of Recent Songs' teaching.

With Warnes and these other new musicians, Cohen seems to be celebrating romantic equals in his world of song, characters not satisfied in union but journeying alongside one another. He speaks, still, of personal isolation. Once more he appends himself with people born of the same land with another cover from French Heritage (this time transatlantic) with Un Canadien Errant. Isolation, discussed here as the character of the song is forcibly removed of what he feels now is an 'unhappy country.'  The following track speaking of the natural treachery from maternal love to a host of romantic love continues the discussion of displacement and where spirits may be lead or taken.

Although I have spoken grandly of this album (and I believe it is to be spoken of such!) it is the first record where I find some tracks not to my liking. Namely, Humbled In Love and I Came So Far For Beauty. The blues influences here and their swagger grate on me. I put this down to nothing but personal taste. What will I feel tomorrow?! My favourite song from this record is The Guests, for it encapsulates so many details and emotions of various parties and gatherings I've attended, particularly the longer-lasting and wetter ones. A true sense of life and interaction I can understand.

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