Leonard Cohen: Take This Waltz
hen I got my hands on The Essential Leonard Cohen recently (which nearly lives up to it's title), I was immensely surprised by his voice. Cohen for me has always been the Cohen of I'm Your Man and The Future, especially as exemplified by the twin peaks of the cryptic warmth of “Tower Of Song” and the briskly, bloodily grinning “The Future.” This is due to both age and temperament, and I'd bought the best-of due to a combination of laziness (it has every song from Cohen's two great latter-day albums that I want) and curiosity about his much-lauded early work; the weedier sound of Cohen's original voice was a shock.
And while that earlier material has grown on me, it still doesn't quite sound like Cohen. Just as Bob Dylan is on some level going to be for me, and my fellow callow youths, the vampire cowboy appearing so pale on the Oscars, Leonard Cohen is the imperturbable, ancient Buddhist Valentino, the one who always has the same facial expression in photos. The work on the first disc is good, even excellent, but it seems almost the work of another man, and not just musically.
One of pop's great romantics, Cohen comes down from the mountains to give us his pronouncement whenever he sees fit (or, recently, whenever his financial advisers take all of his money). He no longer sings, he just speaks in that incomparable voice. That voice has gotten even more rich in the last few years, but it made its first appearance on I'm Your Man, announcing itself with a dry chuckle over a monkey and a plywood violin on “First We Take Manhattan.” But where he once sang directly, he now embroiders his tales.
“Take This Waltz,” also from I'm Your Man, is about as close to singing as he got in the late 80s. Rare for Cohen, the lyrics are not his own; they are adapted from “Little Viennese Waltz” by Lorca. As with all of Cohen's work in this period, the backing is almost chintzy, especially the section where he and Jennifer Warnes start singing “this waltz, this waltz, this waltz.” It sounds like something out of a bad Disney movie. Mostly Cohen just purrs over muted violin and beatless ambience. As is usual with his later work, it's hard to describe without sounding vaguely contemptuous. It shouldn't work, and it almost doesn't.
But then, you hear the way he sings “Oh my love, oh my love! / Take this waltz, take this waltz / It's yours now, it's all that there is.” He sounds helpless, like a supplicant. And you think back to the weird fantasia of imagery, as much Cohen as Lorca:
“There's a piece that was torn from the morning, and it hangs in the Gallery of Frost”
“On a bed where the moon has been sweating, in a cry filled with footsteps and sand”
“And I'll dance with you in Vienna, I'll be wearing a river's disguise”
“Take this waltz, take this waltz, take this waltz with the clamp on its jaws”
And it becomes clear that the singer is hiding something. And, if you're me, you think back to “Chelsea Hotel #2”, where Cohen was at his most forthright, singing “I need you / I don't need you / And all of that jivin' around.” And suddenly, in those swirling six minutes as Cohen waltzes 'round Vienna, I see, clearly, that Cohen really hasn't changed, that he's still singing of the same old hurts and balms. There's still the push and pull of “I need you / I don't need you,” but now there's this towering, Gothic edifice erected over it. Part of it is boredom, I imagine—when you keep your hand in for as long as Cohen has, you have to vary things a little. And part of it is probably protection, the sadness in Cohen's voice only tolerable for short periods.
But all that can be figured out. The beauty, the genius, the true devastation of the love song that is “Take This Waltz” is that as Cohen sings to Her “And you'll carry me down on your dancing to the pools that you lift on your wrist” (and it's always Her of course, the same Her), you really feel it, you feel all the ways that this massive construction doesn't just hide the deeper issues, but amplifies them, renders them rich and strange. I can hear now that Cohen's earlier work is necessary to understand his later, but it's the dream-like potency of those later excursions that have me addicted.