Oh, no, moans an aging hippie after being bitten by a vampire. “Now I’ll be half-dead and half-alive, kinda like Leonard Cohen.” I always laugh at Leonard Cohen jokes, but I don’t share their derisive sentiment. It’s true that Cohen’s vocal range will never rival Cleo Laine’s, and his songs will never be featured in the repertoire of Up with People. And I have to admit that Various Positions is less satisfying than Recent Songs or New Skin for the Old Ceremony (though superior to Death of a Ladies’ Man). Still, Cohen’s insistence on adapting classical poetic forms to the contemporary pop art song and searching for fresh lyrical imagery within a confessional voice has had an important influence on a whole generation of pop composers, and anything he does is worth hearing.
Many of the new songs have a surprising country & western flavor, which comes partly from the use of pedal steel guitars and partly from the simple song structures. “Heart with No Companion” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Johnny Cash record. “The Captain” is an almost jokey Socratic dialogue; “Dance Me to the End of Love” sounds like a Greek dance mixed with a French street song; and “The Law” is a classically enigmatic Leonard Cohen number. But “Night Comes On” expresses the real essence of Cohen’s sensibility, which is not a morbid longing for death but a Samuel Beckett-like meditation on what it takes to keep going. That song also makes the best use of Jennifer Warnes’ haunting harmonies, the high point in John Lissauer’s lucid and beautiful production.