aNewDomain — A new live album, Leonard Cohen’s Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, is giving generations of fans another look into the private mind of a singer-songwriter known for his enigmatic and poetic outlook on life.
The Quebec-born Cohen has been a household name since the heady days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when hits like “So Long Marianne,” “Famous Blue Raincoat” and the iconic “Chelsea Hotel” played endlessly on vinyl. Later, his music went through some serious changes, as in his 1992 album The Future, which features a much darker, modernized style of music. So modern and dark that one track, “Waiting for the Miracle,” became a notable point on the soundtrack of the blockbuster film “Natural Born Killers.”
Nowadays, Cohen is also known for a relentless touring schedule. As the poet enters his 80s, he’s still commanding attention at venues around the world. It seems appropriate, then, that his newest release is a live album and not a studio product. But Souvenir is also a mix of covers, old songs and a couple of new tunes — a grab bag for anyone who needs more of the old poet’s stirring music.
The Old Songs
Listeners of Cohen can travel back to 1971 with a new rendition of “Joan of Arc” (from the studio album Songs of Love and Hate) or to 1974 with a re-recording of “Field Commander Cohen” (from New Skin for the Old Ceremony). One of my personal favorites of the new album is a soft, slow recording of “Night Comes On.”
Video: Leonard Cohen – Night Comes On.flv
In 1984, this song was part of Various Positions, a studio album that re-established Cohen’s lyricism and intrigue with a collection of poignant political and spiritual melodies. Those with a copy of this record can still get chills as Cohen sings:
We were locked in this kitchen / I took to religion / And I wondered how long she would stay I needed so much / To have nothing to touch / I’ve always been greedy that way But my son and my daughter climbed out of the water, crying, Papa, you promised to play And they lead me away / To the great surprise / It’s Papa, don’t peek, Papa, cover your eyes And they hide, they hide in the World…”
An Ode to “The Possum”
Another track on “Souvenir” that’s getting a lot of attention is one of the two covers, where Cohen takes up the legacy of the late country music star George Jones, who has a discography that dates back to the 1950s and dozens of chart-topping tunes to his name.
Video: Leonard Cohen – Choices (Audio)
It’s somehow fitting that in a decidedly cross-genre move, Cohen would elect to sing “Choices,” a song that centers on the singer’s sharp and wistful regret while pondering the depths of his past. Cohen, true to the original, sings:
I guess I’m payin’ for the things that I have done /If I could go back, oh, Lord knows I’d run But I’m still losin’ this game of life I play / Losing and dying with the choices I’ve made.”
What you do get with the new track is the signature Cohen sound: a dirge-like drawn-out rhythm that’s very un-country, a handful of chanting female backup singers and the mystical, wry inflections of Cohen singing as if he’s thinking aloud. Like much of his work, it’s the man behind the sound that we’re thinking about and, like Jones, Cohen often seems to address his audience from behind a smoky bar lost in a ghost world that we think we know all too well.
The New Songs
The two new original songs on the album are a matched pair of blues-format pieces with a sardonic, cynical tone. “Got a Little Secret” sounds a lot like “Darkness” from Cohen’s Old Ideas album, although the organ-heavy, note-redundant nature of the new track also makes it sound a little like Cohen’s singing on a calliope as he rasps: “I’ve made a date in heaven / but I’m keeping it in hell.”
Video: Leonard Cohen – Got a Little Secret (Audio)
In “Never Gave Nobody Trouble,” the singer seems to be wrestling with his own self-destructive tendencies. He could also be speaking about public events using the metaphor of driving a custom-made boat into a sea of garbage, or the great unwashed “99%” that we are all familiar with these days. He laments:
Couldn’t pay the mortgage / and it broke my baby’s heart / never gave nobody trouble / but it ain’t too late to start.”
Video: Leonard Cohen – Never Gave Nobody Trouble
Any one of these tracks makes picking up this gem of an album at an actual record store worth it — or just download it via iTunes, which we’re hoping gets the old man’s blessing.
For aNewDomain, I’m Justin Stoltzfus.
Images in order: Leonard Cohen by Roland Godefroy via Wikimedia Commons; Leonard Cohen by Rama via Wikimedia Commons