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"What is a saint? A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think that it has something to do with the energy of love. Contact with this energy results in the exercise of a kind of balance in the chaos of existence." - Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers
Ten New Songs - Leonard Cohen (Sony)
Initially there is disappointment with the literalism of the title. I had been expecting the tracklisting to be an early indicator of Cohen's mood. Would there be nine songs, with a particular favourite scoring double? Or would there be eleven, with one flawed masterpiece failing to be counted (à la Fellini's 8½)? The last thing I was expecting was for there to be ten songs, but ten songs there are. And they're all new.
A regular complaint made by rock critics is that the medium has nothing new to offer; that all the parameters and hybrids have been exhausted. Critics usually look to youth to provide the cutting edge in rock. Yet there is a sense in which Cohen, at 68, is forging ahead into territory uncharted by rock music. He is now an old man and his lyrical muse is still firing. [At this stage Cohen is above all a survivor. Who else has paced themselves over 35 years? Jagger and Dylan - possibly the only other of the 60s artists still recording - have totally lost the plot (we are having no truck with the current theory that Dylan is back on form). Look at what twenty years in the business did for Presley. Look what five years did for Cobain.] Cohen, and this is onerous to contemplate, is staring death in the face and if he cares to look over his shoulder he has 35 years worth of women to tell us about and a voice wrecked by half a million cigarettes with which to tell us. What does Ten New Songs have to say about the view from Mount Cohen?
We kick in with In My Secret Life, optimistically released as a single. The first 30 seconds are awful, some of the most uninspired, soporific music ever committed to tape. The drum machine sounds like a cheap Casio on a factory preset; the bass has the enervating effect of a mug of Horlicks on a damp, foggy day. Backing vocalists sounding like they have just been lobotomised blandly sing the title four times over. The production is spectacularly, appallingly awful. Seasoned Cohen fans will not be worried, though. This has been the musical form since I'm Your Man. We just have to sit back and wait for Cohen to open his mouth and rip our hearts out.
31 seconds into In My Secret Life, Cohen opens his mouth and rips our hearts out. The voice is staggering, weary and redolent with experience. Let's take a look at the first verse:
I saw you this morning
You were moving so fast
Can't seem to loosen my grip
On the past
And I miss you so much...
Nothing especially inspired there, yet "And I miss you so much" hits like thunderbolt. It's all in the voice: although no context has been established as to who he's missing and what the background is, there's something in there that just oozes experience and longing. And in that moment when he groans the word "miss" we know for certain that Cohen is back.
And later on in the song we get an insight into what is currently going on in Cohen's head: I bite my lip / I buy what I'm told: / From the latest hit / To the wisdom of old / But I'm always alone / And my heart is like ice / And it's crowded and cold / In my secret life. There's a sense here that he's more of an observer these days than a participator, and, silently knowing better, he let's the world get on with whatever it's doing. (Lovely pun on buy, as well.) I'm also reminded of a Matthew Arnold quote I once saw: "30 years old and my heart three parts ice". And this rings true. There's a total absence of warmth and fondness on the album. All we have are memories of such things, and regret that they are gone. This has always been the way of the Cohen song stretching back as far as So Long, Marianne and Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye. But it's never been as predominant as it is on this album. Another song, That Don't Make It Junk, iterates this point better when it says: I tried to love you my way / But I couldn't make it hold / So I closed the Book of Longing / And I do what I am told.
Track two, A Thousand Kisses Deep, is of considerable interest. The lyrics had been worked on since the mid-nineties and by 1998 some sort of deadlock had been reached. Cohen sent the draft lyric to the undoubtedly startled writer of an internet fan site with the words "I have been working on this song for a long time. It seemed to come together a few days ago." Any doubt as to the authenticity of the mail would have been put aside by the obvious quality of the lyric. A second draft arrived a few days later, and Cohen's accompanying text is worth quoting in full:
"This is getting pretty close. (...) The process has become rather comic. But I think we've got it now. It took the crisis of posting it to your site to force a clarification of the text (after three years of secret tinkering). There is an apparent violation of the metre in some verses (e.g. #4) but the old poets would have justified them with devices such as th'Holy Spirit, or th'Means. And these curiosities actually correspond to the accents of the poem when it is sung. This version represents a distillation of many, many verses, all of them tottering over the final line, A thousand kisses deep. I hope this is an end to it for a while."
The song is classic Cohen. It has the best melody of any track on 10 New Songs. But unfortunately the version of A Thousand Kisses Deep is considerably shortened from the 1998 draft. One of the deleted verses ran as follows:
I loved you when you opened
Like a lily to the heat.
I'm just another snowman
Standing in the rain and sleet,
Who loved you with his frozen love
His second-hand physique -
With all he is, and all he was
A thousand kisses deep.
It has been noted that Cohen's sense of humour, a rich vein throughout his previous albums, is muted on 10 New Songs. Yet that image of the snowman strikes me as having a morbid humour to it, and I wonder why it wasn't used in the final version. Is there also some hope there? Will the snowman's frozen heart melt in that sleet and rain? Or is it hopeless, that the defrosting of his frozen love necessarily entails the snowman's destruction, his melting? A friend of mine wants the song on the soundtrack to the film of his autobiography. I must give him a call, because he's clearly not a well man.
A phrase that runs through two tracks is a place called Boogie Street, and this was elaborated on in an interview;
There is, in fact, an actual Boogie Street, Cohen adds. "It's in Singapore. I don't know if it's still there." He stumbled across it years ago when coming home from an Australian tour. By day, he says, it was a bazaar -- he found a box of Leonard Cohen bootleg tapes on sale for a dollar apiece -- "and at night it was a scene of intense and alarming sexual exchange. To me, Boogie Street is that street of work and desire, the ordinary life, that is relieved by the embrace of your children or the kiss of your beloved, or the peak experience in which you yourself are dissolved. As my old teacher said, 'Paradise is a good place to visit but you can't live there because there are no toilets or restaurants.' "
On Boogie Street, the song, we at last find Cohen active and on the prowl: I'm wanted at the traffic-jam / They're saving me a seat ... , but in the end he gets more contemplative: So come my friend, be not afraid / We are so lightly here / It is in love that we are made / In love we disappear. What is that last line referring to? The penultimate line seems to me to be about conception. So the disappearance could be death. But equating love with death requires elaboration that isn't here. (Writer's note: a correction is required here. Not only has Cohen explained this line, he explained it in the quotation given above, "the peak experience in which you yourself are dissolved".)
Along with A Thousand Kisses Deep, Alexandra Leaving is an obvious highlight. This is an absolute choker of a song, even by Cohen standards. The opening verse presents an image of the beloved, Alexandra, sitting on the God of Love's shoulder and departing from the narrator's heart. And as she leaves she becomes "radiant beyond your wildest measure" and she "gains the light". This is a song for the dumped, the cuckolded. Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving / Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost. It's a bleak, beautiful song.
I don't think we can draw general conclusions about old age from Ten New Songs. Cohen's heart may be encased in ice, but one remembers the story about Stravinsky's Grandfather, rumoured to have died at the age of 110 climbing a fence on his way to a midnight assignation. That strikes me as a less dignified, but more hopeful, way to go. Listening to Ten New Songs is a draining experience, and you really do miss those flashes of humour that lit up I'm Your Man. But, Cohen:
With these songs, there's a groove, and on the surface it appears to be automatic, repetitive. Beneath it, though, there's something real. There are doors and windows you can enter. The lyrics are there to be explored, if you want.
Indeed, exploring and writing about those lyrics is a pleasure. This is the first time I've sat down and seriously written about Cohen. And after years of torture deciphering Eldritch's hieroglyphs, it was a revelation how effortlessly Cohen's metaphors gave up meaning. And although the album is a grim listen, the man's interviews are a scream. I recommend following up some of these links.
CS, November 2001
Cohen appeared on an episode of Miami Vice as head of Interpol. Andrew Eldritch's phone number in exchange for a tape.
10 new songs entered the UK charts at 26, outselling Victoria Beckham's album.
Horrible flash design, but words of wisdom from the master at:
Official site, www.leonardcohen.com
Ten New Songs launch site: www.10newsongs.com Recommended: Check out the scans of Cohen's notebook for the drafts of Alexandra Leaving.
Fan site: wwwleonardcohenfiles.com (the fan site from which the original of A Thousand Kisses Deep was taken)