As second comings go, there probably isn’t a less likely one than that of the Canadian poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. Though his kind of confessional romantic despair would appear to be hopelessly passé in the Eighties, it has instead proved to be an inspiration to a new generation of singer-songwriters, from Suzanne Vega to Morrissey, who have taken a cue from his sardonic verse and brooding demeanor (if not his self-deprecating humor).
Underground noisemakers like Nick Cave and Coil have covered Cohen’s songs, and Jennifer Warnes’s album of Cohen covers, Famous Blue Raincoat, was an unexpected critical hit and respectable seller last year. What seemingly appeals to such a wide variety of musicians is Cohen’s eye for poetic detail, his cutting barbs and his finely crafted melodies, which meld folk with ethnic musics — traits all in evidence on I’m Your Man, Cohen’s first major-label album in nearly a decade and a beguiling return to form.
How does Cohen himself feel about such renewed acclaim? You can probably guess. “Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey/I ache in the places where I used to play,” he intones in a voice now so low it sounds as if it were about to fall off the record. Using that voice to its best advantage, though, Cohen has replaced the Judeo-Christian imagery of 1984’s Various Positions with a blunter style reminiscent of his earliest poetry and songwriting, starting with the barbed social commentary of the synth-driven “First We Take Manhattan.” Love as submission, a time-honored Cohen topic, takes on a conspiratorial friendliness in “I’m Your Man” (“If you want a boxer, I will step into the ring for you/And if you want a doctor, I’ll examine every inch of you”).
While the idea of romantic despair still infatuates Cohen — as in the album’s first American single, “Ain’t No Cure for Love,” whose atypically banal lyrics are salvaged by Cohen’s deadpan delivery — he still keeps his knife sharpened at every turn. The one-liners that crop up throughout the album demonstrate how far he has always been from his more angst-ridden contemporaries; few can write as devastating a put-down as the bitterly pessimistic “Everybody Knows” (“Everybody knows you’ve been discreet, but there were so many people you just had to meet/Without your clothes”). In “Tower of Song” he mocks his own infamous singing style: “I was born like this, I had no choice,” he sings. “I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
I’m Your Man, which sports Cohen’s first-ever solo-production credit, does take one completely new tack, though: it is the first Cohen album that can be listened to during the daylight hours. While keeping the focus on his ever flatter but exceptionally charismatic voice, Cohen has fashioned an unabashedly contemporary record steeped in austere synth pop, from slinky reggae (“I’m Your Man”) to Quiet Storm plushness (“Ain’t No Cure for Love,” “I Can’t Forget”). For added flavor, there’s Turkish oud or pedal steel here, caressing female harmonies there. Still, it’s a pleasure to say there’s still absolutely nothing comforting about having Leonard Cohen around.