“Myself,” claims Leonard Cohen, “I long for love and light/But must it come so cruel and oh so bright?” In Cohen’s monochromatic, endgame world, where Scott Fitzgerald’s famous “In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning …” could pass for one of the rules of the game, the answer is almost always yes, the truth almost always yes, the truth almost always cruel and bright. And, not willing to leave it at that, the singer rarely forgets Scott’s terrifying last phrases “… day after day.”
Cohen’s fifth album, New Skin for the Old Ceremony, is not one of his best, but there are songs on it which will not easily be forgotten by his admirers. In “Chelsea Hotel #2,” a remembrance of a departed lover, the artist reaffirms his kinship “for the ones like us who are obsessed by the figures of beauty.” But this obsession — starring, as it does, the singer’s usual archetypal lonesome heroes and heroines who can never quite connect, whose lives are filled with betrayal, inertia, jealousy — is, for Cohen’s detractors, not beautiful at all: the death and despair, the narrow vision, the limited voice, the dark romanticism. Like Graham Greene and Ingmar Bergman, Cohen is concerned with the inevitability of tragedy. He is awesomely open to mythic heroism, to the mystique of love, but in the end he believes, as did Ernest Hemingway, that there are no happy endings between men and women, that the only glory is in the attempt. “Their vows are difficult/They’re for each other,” says the artist in “Why Don’t You Try.” The listener may be advised to do the same.
Leonard Cohen is a writer who has touched a great many people in a way that few others have: “Suzanne,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “The Stranger Song,” “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” “The Partisan,” “Story of Isaac,” “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy,” “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Joan of Arc” are a few of the great ones. Some of the songs are deeply pessimistic — one would not be as haunted by the figures in Bob Dylan’s, Randy Newman’s, Jackson Browne’s mirror — but many are not, and in the rooms of today, Cohen’s predicaments seem both real and reasonable, albeit frightening. All victories, all relationships, may be transitory, but there are many beginnings and many endings to almost everything of importance in a life, and Cohen’s art is more cognizant of this than most.
A solitary survivor caught by the spell of love and death, Cohen shoots for the moon in his best songs. Indeed, his chief strengths would seem to be an insistence upon the deep exploration of his themes (“Like any dealer, he was waiting for the card that is so high and wild he’ll never have to deal another”), an optimism that keeps breaking in (as in the vulnerable admission, “Yes, many loved before us/I know we are not new”) and the power of his lyrics.
The current album is unfortunately marred by John Lissauer’s coproduction (with the singer) and generally insensitive, melodramatic, obtrusive arrangements. Lissauer’s sense of the ironic (banjos, tubas, congas, mocking brass) is as false as Cohen’s is true: In trying for irony, he never gets beyond a kind of cuteness that is merely sarcastic, not sardonic, or just plain at odds with the song (“Why Don’t You Try,” “I Tried to Leave You,” the final few seconds of “Who by Fire”). His regrettable tendency to overproduce does some damage but he does well enough with about half of the material. There are some good songs here (“Chelsea Hotel #2,” “There Is a War,” especially “A Singer Must Die”) and two masterpieces: “Who by Fire,” a chilling litany of suicides and death made more terrifying by its simplicity and the excellent counterpart of the benign female voices in the background and “Take This Longing” (“Oh, take this longing from my tongue/All the useless things my hands have done”), a love song in which the singer once again throws himself on the mercy of a woman.
There comes a time in all of our lives when we realize we cannot be to others all that they and we expect us to be, and that moment is often tragic if there is love involved. For me, the art of Leonard Cohen is about that moment, repeated into infinity. When I saw him recently at the Bottom Line in New York City, I was more convinced than ever of his greatness. His solitude, which he seems to carry with him everywhere, even onstage, was in a way far more moving than the audience’s enthusiastic acceptance of his work. The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky has written: “Alas, unless a man can manage to eclipse the world, he’s left to twirl a gap-toothed dial in some phone booth, as one might spin a Ouija board, until a phantom answers, echoing the last wails of a buzzer in the night.” Leonard Cohen may be that phantom.