re we moving towards some transcendental moment?
“Morning Glory”, from Dear Heather
Well, are we?
Not so long ago, Leonard Cohen turned seventy years of age. Having spent so much of that time scribbling the most oblique, scholarly words on his blackening pages, you may be forgiven for thinking it’s time for something truly revelatory. Since he began writing (first in books of poetry, then novels—songwriting was originally only a ploy to raise dwindling funds), Cohen offered snapshots of personal experience tainted by religious or erotic terminology, seamlessly woven with elements of mythology from some of his most beloved scrolls. Explaining his first (and perhaps his most famous) song, “Suzanne”, he said “everything happened exactly as it was written down”. I’ve always hoped he’d elaborate; after all, he has so many gaps to fill, and so many interested people to tell. But, as his former rival and one-time collaborator Bob Dylan pours out his curious memoirs in a recently published autobiography, Chronicles, Cohen only baffles further.
When Woody Guthrie was dying from Huntington’s chorea, Bob Dylan made regular pilgrimages to his hero’s dwelling, eager to soak up everything he could of the man behind the music before it was too late. Even though he’s in reasonable health, increasingly often I find myself worrying that no one will do similar with Leonard Cohen. With the apparent complacency that has dogged his recent recordings (The lazily titled Ten New Songs suggesting disinterest and an album only to keep Columbia at bay, his incessant need to collaborate/cover/quote lengths of other wordsmiths), I can’t help but wonder if I’m more concerned than he is.
Perhaps it’s the recent death of Johnny Cash, perhaps that of Ray Charles—perhaps it’s the overbearingly mournful timbre that crawls all over Dear Heather which panics me so. It’s present in “Nightingale”, a tribute to the late R&B vocalist Carl Anderson, 9/11 ode “On That Day” and the sleevenote dedication to Jack McClelland, a Canadian publisher who discovered Leonard way back when. In this climate, the speculation that Cohen will go into full retirement in the near future is inevitable, making this a potential parting shot of the songwriter.
Lord Byron’s “Go No More A-Roving” seems indicative of a man ready to wind down, but only in the tenderest way. It seems contradictory that something as destructive as nicotine could be responsible for a voice so soothing, so knowing. That same voice croons the closing cover of country classic “Tennessee Waltz”, for once revisiting his (musical, not geographical) roots, and not before time. “Because Of” examines the way in which Leonard still seems to gain the attention of women, who have been “exceptionally kind” to his old age. But even his lovers fear the worst, insisting, “Look at me Leonard / Look at me one last time”.
“Morning Glory” perfects the decaying stream-of-consciousness lyricism Michael Stipe made famous on “Country Feedback” whilst Frank Scott’s “Villanelle For Our Time” emerges as an empowering mantra over quiet, lounge jazz. So many of Dear Heather’s songs are effectively poetry readings set to music, and these experiments work best in the instances Sharon Robinson and Anjani Thomas are allowed to exercise their temperamental backing vocals to the full. Musically, the title track continues Cohen’s penchant for dated keyboard effects, whilst the obscure lyric repeats and reiterates in the hope that it might eventually mean something.
Despite the distraction provided by Heather’s winter-white legs, Dear Heather is essentially an album of eulogies. As honourable and unselfish as that concept is, we’re left to wonder exactly who—if the man himself is so preoccupied with the death of others—is documenting this phase of Leonard’s life? Really, we can only hope that this isn’t the end of Leonard’s story. There must be more. But if this is the end, then I’m sorry to report that Dear Heatheris a particularly dour, unsatisfying way to end such an intriguing career.
Reviewed by: Colin Cooper
Reviewed on: 2004-11-08