It seems like a good few lifetimes have passed since Paul Weller famously dismissed the songs of Leonard Cohen as “music to slash your wrists to”. That was back in 1984, the same year that Cohen’s Various Positions album (one of his most beauteous) went unreleased in the States, when its creator’s stock had fallen as low as it could possibly go, when Cohen was so hopelessly unfashionable that Weller’s fatuous, knee-jerk remark could pass by uncontested. Two decades on and Laughing Len is just about the coolest man on the planet. A poet, a singer, a part-time monk and a cocksman extraordinaire, he’s universally regarded as the ultimate bohemian.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Cohen became hip again. Perhaps with 1988’s I’m Your Man, when he updated his trademark sound with toytown synths and, nudging his gallows humour to the fore, reminded us that he was indeed the Buster Keaton of despair. Or with 1991’s more expansive The Future, where he dug downwards and outwards to expose the spiritual and cultural vacancy of the times. Through the ’90s, as he disappeared from view, holed up in a Californian mountain-top abbey, his silence was filled by the sound of others (Bono, Jeff Buckley, Nick Cave and all) ringing his praises from a heavily indebted place up on high.
Dear Heather remains more or less faithful to the template of his 2001 album Ten New Songs. A loungey soundscape of ghostly synths, gently palpitating beat-box, almost imperceptible guitar, notional sax and soft, heavenly female voice (Sharon Robinson now sharing shifts with Anjani Thomas) giving permanent fixity to Cohen’s parched vocal. But there’s something more here. Something completed. The vocal sounds more sepulchral than ever. And the words that vocal carries, they sound very final this time. As though Cohen intends this latest batch of songs about spiritual yearning, erotic longing and the limits of intimacy to be his last word on the subjects.
He’s conjured the best of his art by scraping songs from his heart. And the heart is scraped so raw this time around that you can’t help wondering whether the spectre of mortality has become the most regular muse.
As ever, these are mostly songs about love, songs about women. “Go No More A-Roving”, co-written by Lord Byron no less, concedes that the flesh is weak but hints that the spirit might yet overcome and there could still be fireworks at bedtime. “Because Of” humbly admits the dying of the light even as Cohen imagines a beautiful woman bent naked over a bed. On the imperiously jaunty title track, he fantasises about being so enthralled by a woman’s face that he loses the ability to spell words out. Mightiest of all is “The Faith”, based on a Qu