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1 May 2011

Leonard Cohen - 'New Skin for the Old Ceremony' (CBS)

This is my favourite Leonard Cohen without any hesitation, and I wonder if that's because it's his best work, or because it's tied to the most personal associations. Musically speaking, it's somewhat more expansive, as the bursting bright horns on opening cut 'Is This What You Wanted?' indicate. But when it's still centered around voice and guitar, it slays - 'Who By Fire' is one of his most enduring songpoems, no doubt because of it's burning intensity. And 'Chelsea Hotel #2' is one that is equally classic, for me not because of the lyrics (not something I particularly relate to except for the part about being ugly but having the music), but because of the cadence and vocal gestures. 'I don't mean to suggest that I loved you the best / I can't keep track of each fallen robin' is as perfect and casual as Leonard Cohen can possibly be, yet it still resonates with a special magic (and slightly tossed-off at the same time). Yes, New Skin for the Old Ceremony is a flawless record, a tad more flawless than the first three in my opinion (and I realise how contradictory and ridiculous that statement is). Some of these tunes I've read in written form; 'Field Commander Cohen' is a good example but it translates splendidly into song, especially with the punchy strings. The assonance comes out when sung in a way that I don't always pick up on when reading something; Lewis Furey plays viola as well, and I like his solo work a great deal. Syncopation plays a nice role; 'There is a War' and 'Lover Lover Lover' both have a bouncy flamenco feel which in lesser hands would be cloying. This is probably also the key to getting into later more heavily-produced Cohen records; though I'm Your Man never clicked with me, I've come to really adore Death of a Lady's Man (though that's a whole other extreme I guess). I do remember walking around small-town Japan with this on my headphones constantly, with 'Leaving Greensleeves' attaining some sort of magical significance for me as I looked over wet fields of tealeaves. This record might also be the closest Cohen comes to Woody Allen territory, not that it's particularly funny or especially neurotic, but in that style of one-liners - 'I'm so afraid/ thate I listen to you', 'I undid your gown', etc. Again I feel somewhat at a loss for words, which I guess is a natural response to someone like Cohen who is such a master of them. If you're satisfied, as I was for years, it's perfectly acceptable to stop here and not explore any of his further records, though if you only pick one post-NKftOC I would definitely have to recommend Death of a Lady's Man (which I don't actually own, so it won't appear in these annals).

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