Like many people, I came to Leonard Cohen's work by way of cover versions — in my case, Judy Collins' rendition of "Dress Rehearsal Rag." The lyric is one of Cohen's most searing — razor in hand, a man faces down "the horror" in his bathroom mirror — but the studied melodrama of Collins' treatment made the song sound too complete, almost comfortable. I didn't understand why until I heard Cohen's own version. Collins' recording, in retrospect, lacked the feeling of incompleteness, of discomfort — the kind of edge-of-the-precipice displacement that would give rise to such a lyric. This is a quality that's perfectly contained in Cohen's thin, droning voice, but one he's had trouble pinning down in his musical settings. After all, how do you move beyond minimal guitar accompaniment and toward increased listenability without making "the stranger" seem too much at home?
The grotesque beauty of Cohen's last LP, Death of a Ladies' Man — for all that album's flaws — was a step in the right direction. Though he took the task too far and too literally, producer Phil Spector shoehorned the singer into an alien tradition: American rock & roll. (Cohen's spoke-song style actually cleaves more to the European cabaret tradition; he's less a developed folkie than a more mordant Jacques Brel, or the Charles Aznavour of the apocalypse.) If Death of a Ladies' Man captured the large-scale metaphor, with the music serving as the artist's canvas for struggle, Recent Songs goes a step further. Leonard Cohen has finally learned to use music as another kind of paint.
Together with coproducer Henry Lewy, Cohen's couched his compositions in a musical vocabulary itself eerily alien: the half-breed flavor of mariachi, the not-quite-mandolin sounds of John Bilezikjian's oud. The accents of the East spice the rhythms of the West, while medieval symbols and modern language combine to let the songs swing free in time as well as space. The haunting strains of Raffi Hakopian's violin braid beauty and instability to give a name to the whole. What Cohen's come up with (he's been close before) is the gypsies' Romany, the nation that lives in the blood. It's the perfect, smoky back-room-through-the-looking-glass for his high-stakes floating crap game of the heart.
There's not a cut on Recent Songs without something to offer — though "Humbled in Love" and "Came So Far for Beauty" are fields that Cohen, that sharecropper of romance, has often plowed before — and at least four or five tunes are full-fledged masterpieces. I wish I had a tape loop of "The Guests," which features a hold-your-breath, haunting melody. Over Cohen's voice, Hakopian's melting, aching violin sketches high and empty rooms. In the choruses, Jennifer Warnes' layered harmonies weave in and out to fill those rooms with longing specters:
And no one knows where the night is going
And no one knows why the wine is flowing
O love, I need you, I need you, I need you
I need you now.
The guests — uninvited but not unwelcome — are the resonances of romance, the ghosts of past and would-be loves, historical parallels, legends, myths, racial memories that flood to the fore with every lover's touch: i.e., humanity. So each consummation is both completely intimate and as crowded as Ulysses. Every tête-à-tête is also a banquet, and a lover's slip between cup and lip carries all the weighty anguish of the specters left unfed.
What they're waiting for is made more explicit in "The Window," a waltz-tempo companion piece to "The Guests" that could be the spirits' dance music: "Oh bless the continuous stutter/Of the word being made into flesh." For Cohen, sexual mystery and transubstantiation have always been inextricably linked.
With so much feeding into each touch, it's no wonder that human beings — merely human — falter at the gate and lose the courage of what Neil Young calls "the will to love." Like all of Leonard Cohen's records, Recent Songs is full of cowards: for example, the dissipating, rapidly dissolving couple in "The Smokey Life," a jazzy duet with drum-brush pacing. "It's light enough/To let it go," sing Cohen and Warnes, as subdued as the glow of their cigarettes, while a plaintive English horn defines the heartbreak they won't approach or admit. Though love may turn to ashes, here it's simply smoke. Without the dignity of a name, the past wafts away as though it never existed.
Still, Cohen's always been able to ruefully mock his own insistence on seeking the ideal — his reluctant questers often have the stunned, glassy, "Why me?" stare of T.H. White's King Arthur. Despite himself, the narrator of "The Gypsy's Wife" is sucked into the tune's dark swirls of jealousy and passion:
A ghost climbs on the table
In a bridal negligee
She says, My body is the light
My body is the way
I raise my arm against it all
And I catch the bride's bouquet.
If "The Gypsy's Wife" shows the romantic crusader as beleaguered naif, "The Traitor" hits closer to home. Like Cohen, the hero is a footsore soldier of the sex wars, a true believer who nevertheless wishes he'd already found the damn Grail. Called out to the barricades once more (in a brilliant parody of Childe Roland-style balladeering) to defend his ideals — and Leonard Cohen's kind of art — he lets his energies flag. High romance falls prey to wishful thinking, honesty to habit: "I kissed her lips as though I thirsted still.../So daily I renew my idle duty/I touch her here and there, I know my place." When rite becomes rote, the protagonist is both traitor and blasphemer.
But Cohen swathes his conclusions in irony, and "The Traitor" is ambiguous enough to serve as a tragicomic weapon in the battles of overanalytical lovers. Who says the dream the singer fails to chase is any more real than the illusion that takes its place? In the war between "dreamers" and "men of action," the hero fails both sides — because he doesn't work to sustain either's credo. Trapped between two unchallenged beliefs, he's as much a collaborationist in his own fate as the woman who tells him, "But keep my body here to lie upon." Cohen's known about the subtle symbiosis of betrayer and betrayed since "The Stranger Song," yet now, mature rather than simply world-weary, he can recognize ease as the most seductive of demon lovers.
He's also learned enough to realize that such pressures aren't one-sided. It's probably coincidental that, in the album-ending "Ballad of the Absent Mare" (ostensibly borrowed from the Chinese), the tale's told from the cowboy's point of view. Horse and rider — reunited only to part again — ride each other, joined by a kind of love so intense that each begs mentally for solitude: "She longs to be lost and he longs for the same .../And it's time for their burden, it's time for the whip/Will she walk through the flame, can he shoot from the hip." As the composition draws to a close, the camera pulls back to find Leonard Cohen musing about the story's end. It's a fantasy memory, a campfire tale for adults who are giving it one more try. "Just let it go by," murmurs his companion, and "That old silhouette on the great Western sky" — like the final dance of death in The Seventh Seal, as well as the ride-into-the-sunset endings of many cowboy movies — holds for a moment and is gone. But you know that the man and the mare will be guests at the banquet the next time these lovers touch.