“Are you humoring me?” asks Leonard Cohen with a warm grin shortly after the first intermission of Live in Dublin, a new concert film and triple album captured in September 2013 at the Irish venue now known as 3Arena. He’s partway into “Tower of Song”, originally from 1988’s I’m Your Man, where he plinks out a rudimentary keyboard solo over canned percussion, in between vocals about Hank Williams a hundred floors above him and being “born with the gift of a golden voice.” He adds, “If these are the crumbs of compassion that you offer to the elderly, I am grateful.”
If audiences have been humoring Cohen, who was 79 then and is 80 now, for his age, they’ve been doing it for decades; on “Tower of Song”, he also admits to having an “ache in the places where I used to play.” In fact, Live in Dublin is only the latest live album since Cohen returned to the road in 2008, having been swindled out of his savings by a manager. He previously released the closely similar CD/DVD collection Live in London, documenting a show from that first year of touring. And there was 2010’s Songs From the Road, compiling a somewhat different set of songs from various 2008-2009 performances. Whether Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979, Cohen Live (drawing from 1988 and 1993 tours), or Live at the Isle of Wight 1970, live material from the supposedly not-so-golden-voiced songwriting giant is hardly lacking.
There’s still plenty to recommend on Live in Dublin—in all earnestness, at that. For one, though Live in London has shipped more than 200,000 copies worldwide, odds are that for many who might like this package it will be their first live Cohen recording. Besides, compared with the already-magnificent London set it adds several songs that wound up on 2012 studio album Old Ideas, making this a closer to exhaustive document of the perhaps no-longer-touring artist’s legacy; though you’ll probably get more replay value out of the audio component, the quality of the video—billed as Cohen’s first to be shot in high-definition—is a noticeable improvement. Mostly, though, anyone curious about Live in Dublin might at least want to stream the audio or rent the video because, whatever similar releases came before, it’s one monumental tower of a song.
Nothing here changes the foundations of Cohen’s narrative, but as with any archetypal legend, it’s made for retelling. The Jewish-Buddhist poet from Montreal whose songs are often best known through others’ covers reminded crowds on his money-making tours that—despite a perhaps overstated reputation for aloofness (watch him doing standup comedy in 1965’s Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen)—he’s a gifted and generous interpreter of his own work. His speak-singing style has grown deeper and gruffer, but not unbecomingly so, particularly amid so much use. His songs, as former backup singer Jennifer Warnes once told the author of a 1994 Cohen biography, aim to reach “the place where God and sex and literature meet,” but his work since returning has had mostly just the artist’s advancing years in common with death’s-door albums such as Bob Dylan‘s Time Out of Mind or Johnny Cash‘s (Cohen-covering) albums with Rick Rubin. He’s still more of the darkly humorous standup comedian. Yes, he skips off stage.
For all the talk of literature that attaches itself to Cohen, it’s striking when digesting his work at such great length how greatly he prizes the concept of song. His most famous composition, “Hallelujah”, in a verse left out of the Shrek-immortalized John Cale (and thus Jeff Buckley) versions but kept in here, envisions standing “before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah”; toward the end of the Dublin encore, he refers to the joy of being “united with you in the spirit of song.” Whether on 1967’s “Suzanne”, where “you touched her perfect body” (but only “with your mind”), or 1974’s “Chelsea Hotel #2”, where “we are ugly but we have the music,” physical reality can be a flawed vessel for this spirit. On “Anthem”, a song from 1992’s The Future that featured on Trent Reznor‘s Natural Born Killers soundtrack and precipitates Cohen’s first traipse off the Dublin stage, he sings, “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” Perfection is impossible, he explained around the time of song’s release, noting that imperfection is “where the resurrection is.”
Cohen’s fatalism doesn’t prevent him from at least striving toward perfection. Longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson, who sang backup during the recent shows along with English duo the Webb Sisters, in her new photograph book On Tour with Leonard Cohen describes the concerts as a “detailed snapshot” of Cohen’s life’s work, “meticulously put together” and requiring “a Zen-like focus.” The virtuosity of the backing band, which includes an additional six musicians along with the singers, is a further expression of Cohen’s graciousness onstage. Despite the self-conscious artifice of “Tower of Song”, the rest of the performances are based in rootsier music, whether American folk, rock, jazz, and blues or European traditions (Spanish guitarist Javier Mas also plays lesser-known instruments including the bandurria, the laud, and archilaud). Cohen’s willingness to stretch his songs to their limits with instrumental and vocal solos means these concert recordings can’t be as lean as 2002’s The Essential Leonard Cohen—the Dublin set consists of 30 songs lasting about three hours, and the video portion adds three Old Ideas tunes performed in Canada—but in ringing the bells that still can ring, it’s perhaps truer to Cohen’s philosophy.
One more aspect setting Live in London apart from studio Cohen was his joyful interaction with the audience, and if anything that has intensified on Dublin. By the encore’s opening “So Long, Marianne”, he’s eliding words in the chorus as if startled by the crowd’s jubilant belting of the 1967 song; “You sing so pretty,” he says. And much as Cohen is willing to trust his songs to cover artists and to world-class bandmates, he also brings “the spirit of song” by closing the night with someone else’s: “Save the Last Dance for Me”, most famously recorded by the Drifters in 1960 (none other than Lou Reed worked with Doc Pomus, who cowrote the song with Mort Shuman, and Reed has said the song was written on the day of the wheelchair-bound, polio-stricken Pomus’s wedding, to a Broadway actress and dancer). By this point in the recording, my first time experiencing the concert, I was expecting something sublime, and that’s what I got, though not in the way I expected: The stage lights shine on the audience members, who do much of the hook-singing work for Cohen. Forget your perfect offering.
Cohen is a genially commanding stage presence, falling on his knees at crucial moments and doffing his cap for his accompanists’ solo turns. The Old Ideas songs, sprinkled throughout the set at just the right intervals, are naturally at home, capped with the wry God-speaking-to-a-man-named-Leonard “Going Home”. Otherwise, the songs you know and plenty of songs you should know better are probably here. There’s the apocalyptic The Future title track and the organ-drenched take on 1969’s “Bird on the Wire”, the smoldering Robinson co-write “In My Secret Life”, off of 2001’s Ten New Songs, and same pair’s bleak 1988 I’m Your Man collaboration “Everybody Knows” (used by Guns N’ Roses as intro music on some Use Your Illusions shows). I’m Your Man‘s disco-funk “First We Take Manhattan”, covered by backup singer Warnes with Stevie Ray Vaughan as part of her influential 1987 tribute album Famous Blue Raincoat, runs right into a powerfully restrained take on that album’s title track, originally from 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate (“Sincerely, a friend,” Cohen signs off this time).
Paradoxically, on the songs at greatest risk of overexposure, it’s often the instrumental interludes, not Cohen’s poetry, that make my hair stand on end, further justifying the songwriter’s faith. This is especially the case for “Hallelujah”, bringing to mind another less-covered lyric—one that underscores where Cohen differs from the trickster likes of Dylan: “I’ve told the truth/ I didn’t come to fool you.” For the last time, no, the good people of Dublin weren’t humoring him. There might not be a single perfect, all-encompassing Cohen recording, but there’s this. “You can add up the parts/ But you won’t have the sum,” he sings on “Anthem”, and despite his failed tax-avoidance retirement strategy, I’m inclined to trust the Zen priest in the bolo tie and fedora.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1vN1uyD