Ever notice how the major figures in Canadian pop music share a kind of authentic creepiness that we other North Americans can’t really approximate? Think about it: Neil and Joni. That’d be enough right there. But also Bruce Cockburn and Geddy Lee. (Geddy Lee, for Christ’s sake.) Plus, Gordon Lightfoot. Then there’s Garth Hudson and poor, dead Richard Manuel, those two quiet old genius beardos from the Band; one thinks of Manuel being interviewed in The Last Waltz, when he’s asked about the groupies, stroking his hairy cheeks and muttering, “That’s probably why we’ve stayed on the road.” Oh, that is gross. Alanis Morissette could be an inheritor of the tradition, if she were good. Consider the way she enunciates like she learned English through a correspondence course: “Would shé go down on yuh in uh thé-ah-trrr?”
Perhaps none of these folks is as creepy as Leonard Cohen, the septuagenarian Jewish Canadian mystical Buddhist poet-lecher who’s written and performed some of the greatest art-folk songs of the twentieth century, and whose career has been rich enough to sport multiple bona fide phases, each of which yielded its masterpieces. Lyrically speaking, only Dylan is better, runs the conventional opinion (not an insane one, if you’re restricting the field to exclude Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer). Cohen’s new album, Dear Heather, is exceptionally bad and—not to abuse a point—creepier than any Canadian record I know. Still, he’s Leonard Cohen, and he’s never done anything uninteresting. Dear Heather is bad in some pretty interesting ways.
For one thing, it’s the apotheosis of the production style Cohen adopted in the eighties: extremely precise arrangements that sound like they came preprogrammed from a Casio PT-80; pitch-perfect backup singers whose voices are made to sound robotically chilly; sweeping, synthesized string parts; and below it all, Cohen’s voice, getting deeper and grimmer with each album, whispering to you his brain-bummed, postapocalyptic, defiantly romantic visions. Now, with the arrival of Dear Heather, an album that begins with Lord Byron’s “We’ll Go No More A’ Roving” set to virtual Muzak (on which track, after Cohen sings “And the soul outwears the breast,” the backup singers come in doo-wop style with “Outweeeears the breeeeast”), it may at last be time to ask: Whither this style?
We know that Cohen cares deeply about studio philosophy—his clash with Phil Spector over the arrangements on Death of a Ladies’ Man supposedly escalated to the point that at least one pistol was drawn—and in recent years, he’s built his own recording facility (a perilous thing where self-indulgence is concerned). It’s clear that he means to be doing exactly what he’s doing. I used to think I knew what that was. On I’m Your Man, probably the most popular among those Cohen records that aren’t best-of compilations (in part because tricked-out cover versions of two of its songs—“First We Take Manhattan” and “Everybody Knows”—became college-radio hits for R.E.M. and Concrete Blonde, respectively), the material seemed to gain power from the sterility of the approach.
There was a statement in there, somewhere, maybe about how hard it is to protect your soul in a mechanized world, something like that. It made sense. Cohen sounded like an old Eastern European poet who’d been trapped in an elevator one night and kept himself sane by making up pop songs in English. There was a tension, between his too-human voice and the other, less-than-human sounds, that made sense.
The tension slackened during the nineties, and now one has to conclude it’s gone. Dear Heather is rambling—rambling not like a young boy in a field but like a street person trying to explain his philosophy to you. After the Lord Byron remix, there’s a song called “Because Of,” in which Cohen gives us to know that “Women have been / Exceptionally kind / to my old age.” (He’s been almost as famous for his sexual preoccupation through the years as for anything else: This is the man, you’ll remember, who eulogized Janis Joplin in the second person, singing, “You were … giving me head in the unmade bed.”) These women say, “Look at me, Leonard.” They get naked. Then they “bend over the bed.” Then they “cover me up / Like a baby that is shivering.” And the backup girls go (they really do), “Like a baaaaby.”
There’s nothing wrong with our seniors having sex. I salute them. But the poor taste that seemed willful and puckish on previous Cohen records now seems plain poor—almost helplessly so. One has the sense there’s nobody around him these days who feels comfortable saying “Look at me, Leonard: That one sucks.” The cheesiness of the production can’t be excused anymore simply by its being conscious, since it isn’t being played off anything superior. It’s taken over.
Dear Heather is a mournful record, shadowy with lost loves and dead friends and old letters, memories that torture as they entice. A redeeming quality here is that this sadness seems so sad, and not gratuitously so. Cohen hasn’t run out of things to say. His voice is spectral, slipping in and out; the songs often fade unexpectedly early. “Wounded forms appear,” he sings in one, and in another, “Death is old / But it’s always new.”
There’s a lot of spoken-word stuff, too. If only it worked. With few exceptions (Van Morrison’s “Rave On John Donne”—there must be others, no?), it’s good to let poems be poems and songs, no matter how poetic, be songs. When Cohen starts talking his lines, it’s like you woke up to find your uncle standing over you in his bathrobe, rapping. I haven’t even mentioned the moment in “On That Day,” Cohen’s 9/11 dirge, when a cartoonish Jew’s harp starts boinging in the middle of the line “On that day / They wounded New York.”
It’s stuff like this that makes me fear I’m deaf to some frequency of Cohen’s humor. But I don’t think so. I think he’s gone too many miles down a dwindling stylistic path. This record has every side of Leonard Cohen on it—his persona, his poetry, his voice—everything except the magnificent songs he’s able to create. I wish that for his next album, he’d pull a Johnny Cash and have himself recorded starkly, voice and guitar. That’d force him to pay attention again to the songcraft; he’s a universally recognized master of it, after all. At his present rate, such a record would come out in 2007, when he’ll be well into his seventies. Dear Heather aside, who’d be surprised if it were a classic?
Leonard Cohen, whose spoken-word delivery made him an early rap pioneer (and landed him on one blog’s ranking of the worst emcees ever, along with Vanilla Ice and C-3PO in Return of the Jedi), did guest vocals on 1990’s “Elvis’s Rolls Royce” by the Detroit duo Was (Not Was). His music has appeared in over 50 films, including Pump Up the Volume, Natural Born Killers, and Robert Altman’s 1971 McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a gig Cohen almost turned down. Bob Dylan, John Cale, Jeff Buckley, and Rufus Wainwright all covered Cohen’s “Hallelujah”; Wainwright’s version is on the soundtrack to Shrek.