Cohen: New Spin From an Old Ceremony

For more than three decades, Leonard Cohen has been our great bard of late-night melancholy, our baritone-voiced scholar of heartache and cultural decay.

Though he is a citizen of the world–Canadian by birth, his travels have taken him from the Greek island of Hydra to a Zen monastery near Los Angeles, where he lived as a monk for part of the 90’s–Mr. Cohen possesses the soul of a New Yorker. He spent a few years here in the 60’s, and many of his best songs–”Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Please Don’t Pass Me By”–are set here. But even when they’re not, his slow, shadowy musings have captured our obsession with the limits of intimacy, sexual longing and spiritual conviction. And his explorations of flamenco, country-and-western, Mediterranean folk music and, more recently, Eurodisco and soul music have, with few exceptions, appealed to our cosmopolitan ways.

But for a long time now, fans of Mr. Cohen have had to content themselves with his back catalog. A notoriously slow writer, he has not released an album of new material for almost a decade, although there have been some whispers at his record label, Columbia, that an album of original material may be ready later this year. In the meantime, admirers of Mr. Cohen can whet their appetites with Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979 (Columbia), a spirited collection of live performances culled from a number of dates in England that fell at the end of a European tour.

Some old favorites, such as “So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on a Wire,” are included here, but quite a few of the tracks come from an uncomfortable transition period in Mr. Cohen’s career that occurred during the mid- to late 70’s, after the cult success of his first three albums of folk music, but before Mr. Cohen settled on the electronic-keyboard sound that led to his excellent comeback album, I’m Your Man , in 1988. Still, Mr. Cohen wrote many very good songs during this period, and it’s fortunate that someone in his camp decided to release live versions of some of them–particularly “The Window,” “The Smokey Life,” “The Gypsy’s Wife” and “The Guests,” tracks that originally appeared on the album Recent Songs , which was released shortly before the tour documented here. The studio versions of these songs were all somewhat leaden, but live, the songs benefit from slightly more improvisational arrangements and a more spacious sound.

Not surprisingly, several of the tracks look at relationships from the standpoint of middle age. The characters in Mr. Cohen’s songs tend to be at the end of their affairs, when emotions are complex, rather than at the beginning. “The Smokey Life” treats a dissolved romance with bittersweet resignation. Backed by subdued, bluesy guitar and a brushed snare, the song’s centerpiece is Mr. Cohen’s smoldering duet with longtime backup singer Jennifer Warnes, whose ethereal alto expertly conveys longing and melancholy. “The Window” is a slow, expansive waltz in which the singer questions his remote lover while Raffi Hakopian’s exquisite, Gypsy-like violin and Ms. Warnes’ backing vocals weave in and out of the background.

The slow death of ideals is another one of Mr. Cohen’s favorite topics, and he gets around to it on the album’s title track, a dialogue of self and soul in which Mr. Cohen addresses himself: “I never asked but I heard that you cast your lot with the poor / That you be this and nothing more / Than just some grateful, faithful woman’s favorite singing millionaire, / The patron saint of envy and the grocer of despair, / Working for the Yankee dollar.” On this live version, Mr. Cohen tosses in a few lines from Morey Amsterdam’s novelty song “Rum and Coca-Cola,” a tune popularized by World War II sweethearts the Andrews Sisters. For those fans who recall that Mr. Cohen entertained troops and sipped cognac with Ariel Sharon during the Yom Kippur War, the inserted lines add another level of irony to a song already brimming with satire and guilt.

Mr. Cohen’s voice is warm and strong throughout, and still has some of the high end that is not so evident on his last two studio albums. The overall quality of the recording is good too, save for the fact that some of the acoustic instruments sound as though they were fed into the mix through electric pickups. In some instances, this accentuates the bright, percussive bite of picked strings, as with the oud (an Eastern lute-like instrument, played with virtuosic flair by John Bilezikjian) on “Lover Lover Lover.” At other times, though, it robs Mr. Cohen’s gentle acoustic arpeggios and Roscoe Beck’s sinewy fretless-bass lines of resonance.

This is the third live album Mr. Cohen has released. If it is not as vital as Live Songs (1973), which featured a number of great, otherwise unavailable songs, it is still a valuable document. Live Songs gave us his early work; Cohen Live , a 1994 collection, was largely representative of his later output. This record sheds more light on those often-overlooked in-between years.

As for the classics showcased on Field Commander Cohen , Mr. Cohen offers up his best-known lyrics almost wistfully. The band relaxes and stretches these renditions with instrumental solos that, in some cases, sound out of place or cosmetic. But in general, the songs still shine.

On “So Long, Marianne,” Mr. Cohen adjusts the third verse slightly to say, “Ah, we met, when was it? / We were almost young.” It’s an acknowledgment that his youth has departed. But it’s precisely because Mr. Cohen is so attuned to those moments of loss that his songs never seem to show their age.