Sunday, 17 March 2013
Top 102 Albums⁺. No 36. New Skin for the Old Ceremony.
Top 102 Albums⁺ No 36
New Skin for the Old Ceremony - Leonard Cohen
"But then I overheard your prayer,
that you be this and nothing more
than just some grateful faithful woman's favourite singing millionaire,
the patron Saint of envy and the grocer of despair"
It could be any of five or six Cohen albums here. Maybe the choice is even wider but this is the one I find myself listening to most over the past few years. I'm not going to even try to say why this is my favourite. I tried but didn't really agree with myself so what hope have I of convincing others. It just is.
Cohen is one of the few artists that I discovered in my parents record (cassette actually) collection that has stayed with me. It was clear to me at a very young age that he did things with songs that were unique, that he defined his own genre.
Thinking now I suppose I feel that Cohen's work is as influenced by an imaginary leap towards the idea of Orpheus and his lyre as it is by any twentieth century music. The old ceremony here is, I read, the idea that music is a sacred unguent poured over experience. The songs seem like they've been slowly carved from stone rather than jotted on the back of an airline ticket or the envelope that the last royalty cheque arrived in. The words have been burnished by time and effort and their viewpoint seems accepting of all the sins and foibles of our kind, including Cohen's own. The viewpoint seems rooted deeply in some bedrock accessible to druids and minstrels.
The words are oracular, but also slapstick, filled with yearning but also disdain. Cohen is not afraid to undermine himself - the phrase "grocer of despair" could hardly be bettered by his critics, but this laughter doesn't undermine the performances with any sense of lesser seriousness. He may laugh but he still believes the world and his words worth believing in. His is the type of despair that it often derided by people whose own despair is such that they believe there is no meaning or purpose in anything other than satisfying their own desires.
Chelsea Hotel #2 is a song of wonder, full of the lessons of experience and pain held in bay by humour and acceptance. The brief congress of two people who are beyond games it includes one of my all time favourite phrases - "we are ugly but we have the music" - which perfectly captures the mix of self-deprication and apostolic fervour at work here.
Perhaps the song which fits the title best is Who By Fire in which Cohen takes inspiration from an ancient Jewish prayer and gives it a very modern skin, without in any way disrupting the mystery of the original.
"And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
and who by avalanche, who by powder,
who for his greed, who for his hunger,
and who shall I say is calling?"
He also reworks the national anthem of answering machines in the album's closer, Leaving Greensleeves, exiting his version with a voice gradually reaching towards a scream.
But the voice is more often a deep impervious river bubbled now and again by subterranean laughter, at other times slowed by the thickening syrup of despair. But onwards it flows, neither source nor destination visible, it's bed filled with polished stones jostling in the current : #moremeaninglessmetaphorsfromVapourTrails
The tunes are great too.