First Impressions of Leonard Cohen ‘Live in London’
If you haven’t tapped in yet, Leonard Cohen’s Live in London album is streaming for free all this week on NPR.org. What follows here is by no means my official review of the disc, whatever that is. It’s simply my first impressions as I stream it this morning. Typically, when reviewing an album, I’ll listen to it many, many times to make sure I hear everything, get everything, make sure it has a chance to grow on me if that’s the kind of record it is. Not every album is good the first time around. Not every album is good the tenth time around. In fact, most of the really great records are like a good pair of shoes – you have to wear them around for a while and let them contour to you.
Good music is all about hitting the right person the right way in the right time and place. (Just an eye on the whole music critic thing there.) So, since this is a first impressions blog, I’ll give you a little context. It’s been a particularly busy week. The weather here has been pretty gloomy, cold, rainy and grey. I’m listening to this stream from a coffee and donuts place on Capitol Hill. I started my day a few hours earlier than usual today and, beyond my earbuds, there’s some bass-heavy classic-style hiphop on the coffee shop speakers. No amount of cranking up Leonard Cohen can drown that out. Next to me is a man writing on paper (novel concept) and a small child (maybe six years old) writing on a computer (the next generation).
So here we go with my first impressions, song by song, of Disc One from Leonard Cohen’s performance in London:
He opens saying only “So kind of you to come to this.” Nice, but really? You’re Leonard Cohen. He goes straight into the first song without any more fanfare, and so shall I:
“Dance Me to the End of Love” – I like how high the bass is in the mix. This isn’t my favorite Leonard Cohen song of all time, but it’s hitting me in the right place this morning. Cohen’s good at peopling his band with a high number and wide array of musicians and instruments, and somehow it all comes together swimmingly. I wouldn’t want to lead this large of a band, but this song sets the bar high for the rest of the performance.
His brief and clever between-song banter: “It’s wonderful to be gathered here on just the other side of intimacy.” I wonder if he thought of that line before hitting the stage, or if that’s the kind of line you shoot from the hip when you’re Leonard Cohen. Next song.
“The Future” – This is what I’m talking about. This is what I love about Leonard Cohen. He cooed me in all smooth and sly and then turned around and nailed me with “When they said repent, I wonder what they meant.” I love this song. He’s not letting me down. It’s funny to think of all that’s happened since he wrote this song – if he’d only known at the time, right? “There’ll be phantoms, there’ll be fires on the road and the white man dancing”…
“Ain’t No Cure for Love” – Leonard Cohen, lounge singer. This tune lost me at saxophone.
“Bird on the Wire” – And here, he pulls me back in, throwing in lines I didn’t know like, “It was the shape of our love that twisted me.” It’s hard not to resign to Cohen’s pleas for redemption in this song. By the time he delivers the last line, I’ve totally forgiven him even though I don’t know what he did wrong.
“Everybody Knows” – This is one of my favorite songs of all time, so I’m happy he put it so high in the set. It sounds the way I expect it to sound, but his voice is slightly more full of contempt than I remember. The ambient oohs and ahs from the backing vocalists are perfect, as is the Spanish guitar. The great thing about this song is that it’s so full of darkness and resignation until the chorus. The first “Everybody knows” is like a window thrust open for a split second, then slammed shut again when he sings “That’s how it goes.”
“In My Secret Life” – He co-wrote this song with Sharon Robinson (with whom he also wrote “Everybody Knows”) and it takes on a similar resigned-to-reailty’s-hard-truths quality. It’s all dark halls and downcast eyes, sonically speaking. The bridge (“Hold on, hold on my brother…”) sheds a bit of light before the persistent darkness of the verse returns (“I’m always alone and my heart is like ice / and it’s crowded and cold in my secret life”).
“Who By Fire” – This opens with Javier Mas delivering an extraordinary solo, which is too good to sit here and write about. I’m just going to listen. It ends too soon. This is a great song, don’t get me wrong, but it feels in this context like it’s merely a vehicle for Javier Mas’ musicianship. Which is fine.
“Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” – I’ll probably really love this on my second or third listen. It’s early in the morning right now, though, and I’m too wide awake for this kind of enormously sentimental lullaby.
“Anthem” – He’s playing this one so close to a whisper, which is perfect, really. I was just discussing this song with a friend, who claims it encapsulates Calvinist philosophy. Having not studied Calvinism that closely myself, I’ll take her word for it and stick that statement in here. I just love the song and I love the way he’s performing it. It’s quiet and slow and it requires slowing down and listening carefully, which is an important way to experience the world sometimes. Particularly on Thursday mornings when the sun, which has been somewhere else all week, is shining right in my eyes.
” Tower Of Song” – Of course the crowd goes wild when he sings, “I was born with the gift of a golden voice”. Considering Leonard Cohen’s entire canon of work, it’s interesting to see which songs he chose for this performance/album/DVD. I’m always fascinated by set lists, particularly from artists with such an extensive, versatile songwriting history. This is an interesting choice to open a set (he took an intermission after “Anthem”), but it paves the way nicely for “Suzanne”.
“Suzanne” – Again, we’re treated to a lengthy intro by Javier Mas. Cohen is naturally adept at delivering this song/poem as though he simply put a microphone up to his brain. Its distant and stream-of-consciousness narrative would be hard to understand otherwise. Age has given him, it seems, some added perspective on this tale and I like the way it rolls right out.
“The Gypsy’s Wife” – My first impression of this tune pretty much marries that of “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”. I know I like this song, but it’s not fair to really comment considering the fact that all the background noise in this room is drowning it out.
That’s it. Have you listened yet? What are your thoughts? Maybe I’ll do Disc Two later.