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.


  1. 'You were KY jelly, I was vaseline'...
    The Grocer of Despair is often my Sunday morning listening.
    It's easier than church and I get to drink coffee...
    To keep them all in one place I recently invested in the box set of his albums remastered. It comprises the first 11 studio albums up to (and including 'Dear Heather'). Cost a miserly £25.
    It's now cheaper; £22.07.
    You, Seamus, will delight in the knowledge that I taught the daughter of the mother; the lover that was the inspiration for 'Suzanne'...

    1. £2 per album! That's a bargain. Selling melancholy by the pound.

  2. Fabulous and insightful acknowledgement btw Seamus.
    I may well steal your words and call them mine...

    1. Steal away! These post midnight posts can be dangerous. I often find I've reached for meaning and overreached, grasping meaninglessness.

  3. Reaching or grasping?
    Ah, but that's where the magic is Seamus.

  4. Seamus - your parents had a better record collection than mine (oliver and jesus christ superstar , a spinners lp and some old smoothy called peter skellen and that was it) without coming over all over dead poets society we had an English teacher that used to rave about laughing len saying he was the worlds greatest living poet - being 16 yr old of course we knew best and tended to drift off whenever he took a detour illustrating macbeth through a cohen song ( this also may have something to do with the fact that he would often teach whilst lying on the floor) however gradually more and more bands I loved started to name check him that I had to give in and investigate - although the lp I first got was the comeback one I'm your man after going on a boys holiday to spain and hearing the lp in every bar we went into. As a result I have this and the greatest hits only (I'm guessing Jennifer warnes's covers lp doesn't really count). So I know 2 of the songs more by their covers (Lloyd cole's Chelsea hotel and Mac's lover lover) - the £25 box set is too good a bargain to resist!

    1. I'm Your Man is a good one. Have fun exploring the box set. I'm thinking of getting it even though I have almost all already - and my wife does not like Len! My memory of a teacher using pop music was when a substitute teacher asked us if we could sing the Christmas No 1 which was Another Brick in the Wall. Sounds great hearing a massed chorus of schoolboys singing it in school.

      I suppose I really listened to Cohen when I read interviews with Mac raving about him back when I was a Bunnymen fanatic. And then Nick Cave covered Avalanche when my allegiance had passed from the Bunnymen to the Bad Seeds.

  5. Replies
    1. Well - our dog is called Kylie, which used to lead to many quizzically turned heads when we'd call her in the park when we lived in Dublin. It was a popular name for girls within a quite specific age range.

  6. Our local pub's dog was 'Tramp'.
    He always growled at ugly women.
    His judgement was much admired.
    We'd sit out in the summer with him.
    As the ladies walked by he'd occasionally growl.
    Of course we'd all try and quieten him by shouting out 'Tramp'.
    That dog started so many fights...