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Although this is Leonard Cohen's second album since a decade-long absence from recording that began after the release of 1992's The Future, the reality of his return is still difficult to get your brain around. When he emerged from years of monastic exile to issue 2001's Ten New Songs, it was like discovering a long-deceased relative sitting in the parlor and patting their lap for you to come sit as if they'd never left. Life after death suits Cohen. He's always been a box of paradoxes: Canada's poet laureate singing songs for New York; a voice made more beautiful by its untaught commonplaceness; and, according to Anjani Thomas, "the only man I know who pairs Kraft Macaroni & Cheese with a 1982 Chateau La Tour."
Dear Heather is the 70-year-old singer's 11th studio recording, and it suits his age. The backing music evokes NPR filler (you can either thank or curse producer Leanne Ungar for this)-- nocturnal smooth jazz, elevator sax lines, and aged hipster tropes-- but Cohen's towering presence and deft songwriting breathe life into the lite-jazz arrangements, a reminder that the oft-abused genre is innately pleasant. The juxtaposition of Cohen's canny sophistication with the fanciful music results in a smoothness with an edge; a razor wrapped in silk.
It's fitting that the man who returned from oblivion sings like a ghost: Cohen's voice is almost gone. His resonant baritone has flattened and deepened to a papery whisper; he sounds how Tom Waits might if a powerful lozenge scoured away the rusty pots and pans clanging on his vocal cords. But Cohen has always been adept at turning liabilities into advantages, and his voice scrapes powerfully over the evocative music.
Dear Heather continues Cohen's longtime collaborations with Sharon Robinson and Anjani Thomas. Robinson-- a talented singer, songwriter, and producer-- has been working with Cohen since the late 1970s, and jazz singer Thomas has since 1984. Besides co-writing and arranging many songs on the album, both singers' angelic voices paint bright stripes across Cohen's broad swathes of gray and keep them from diffusing into aether. They're the cavorting muses to his bohemian elder statesman, propping up the weary lion in winter as he sings of sorrow and redemption.
The dark, wistful "The Letters" is a throwback to classic Cohen brooders like "Last Years Man"; barely-there murmurs slink over ascetic piano and guitar. Cohen's stately stage whisper, "Your story was so long/ The plot was so intense", amplifies the aching loveliness of Robinson's chorus. The libidinous "Because Of" proves the old dog's still got some lead in his pencil. Over a percolating shuffle remindful of Rain Dogs-era Waits, Cohen indulges a bit of sly self-awareness: "Because of a few songs wherein I spoke of their mystery/ Women have been exceptionally kind to my old age". And the title track finds Cohen intoning one short verse ("Dear Heather, please walk by me again/ With a drink in your hand/ And your legs all white from the winter"), sometimes speaking the words and sometimes spelling parts of them-- all over a trilling circus organ, trumpets, and breathy harmonies. This is Cohen at his most playful and enigmatic; clipped motes of ephemeral photo-realism.
The second mode of Dear Heather is literally elegiac: More than a third of its songs are dedicated to passed friends and colleagues. "Go No More A-Roving" is a Lord Byron sonnet set to jazzy muzak, in memory of the great Canadian poet, novelist and pedagogue Irving Layton, who was Cohen's teacher at the Jewish parochial school Herzliah. "On That Day" is Cohen's 9/11 song, which he handles with his usual humility, responding to the scenery-chewing on both sides of the moral axis with a resigned, musical shrug of helplessness: "I wouldn't know, I'm just holding the fort/ Since that day they wounded New York". The song's simplicity-- all starry piano and springy Jew's harp (which is usually an antic, clownish embellishment, but which Cohen has proved able to use tastefully at least since "Bird on a Wire")-- imbues it with a weary sorrow that casts ripples throughout the album. It's immediately contrasted by "Villanelle for Our Time", dedicated to Frank Scott, which recasts the late poet's villanelle as a beatnik spoken word piece, and seems a spiritual tonic responding to "On That Day": "From bitter searching of the heart/ Quickened with passion and with pain/ We rise to play a greater part".
Ascribing a numerical value to Cohen feels like rating a sunrise or a religion; one feels absurdly insufficient. Because inaccuracy would be a ghastly dishonor to the candid spirit of Cohen's music, I wrestled prodigiously with my rating. Was I inflating it because of my regard for its author? This sort of lite-jazz is certainly outside of my usual purview. Would these songs still be enchanting if similarly sung by a less hallowed figure? I decided that the honest answers were yes and no, respectively, but that this did nothing to gainsay the rating. That authorship is a silent but vital aesthetic component of art is a point Borges incontrovertibly proved in "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote", which I'll encapsulate with its final sentence: "Would not the attributing of The Imitation of Christ to Louis Ferdinand Celine or James Joyce be a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual counsels?" As long as an album's impact is genuinely felt, it's inconsequential if the impact partially stems from the powerful aura of its creator.
Dear Heather is gorgeous, quietly poignant rendering of autumnality. Only Cohen could have pulled it off. And unlike Ten New Songs, I can't stop listening to it, which seems the ultimate justification for praise. Above all else, it's an honest document of this stage of Cohen's life, and it therefore honors his lifelong commitment to unflinching self-scrutiny. With its scattered, melancholic requiems permeating their neighbor songs by osmosis, one can't help but feel the entire album amounts to Cohen preemptively penning his own eulogy. In doing so, he defies Dylan Thomas's directive to not go gentle into that good night; instead he whispers, whispers to the dying of the light. It's a perfectly apt home stretch for an oeuvre that has always been marked by grace, equanimity, and quiet dignity.
-Brian Howe, November 4th, 2004
Leonard Cohen's recent albums - share your views with others!
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