I have just returned from the Leonard Cohen concert at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and am pleased that the show surpassed my expectations. What where they? Well, Cohen turned 78 this past September and I wasn’t certain if he would be able to move around the stage. Cohen answered that question immediately when he trotted onto the stage after his band. True, Cohen’s movements on the stage are primarily limited to kneeling on one or both knees, tensing his entire body to deliver on a specific moment in a song or bowing, fedora in hand, in the direction of a band member who just completed a solo. Still, that was more than expected.
And how did he sound? He sounded like Leonard Cohen. The band ably supplied most of the music, the background singers did their best not to drown out Cohen, and were mostly successful, and Cohen himself showed that his limited voice still has lost nothing of its potency. The real eye-opener was on one of his most well-known, and most covered, songs, “Hallelujah”. Some artists would avoid playing a song that another artist has possibly done a definitive version of (in this case Jeff Buckley) and some artists would come up with a new arrangement to demonstrate who still owns the song. Mr. Cohen played it straight and left no doubt that the other artists who cover “Hallelujah” are just borrowing it; the definitive version is still Mr. Cohen’s.
The concert did nothing to dissuade me from the view that many of Cohen’s songs have too many verses. Cohen started out as a well-regarded poet before turning to music and it feels that there is never an end to what he wants to say. And I’m not complaining about any specific verse. I’m not capable of editing Cohen. But there were a number of times during the show, as there have been when listening to him, when I was hoping that he was about to wrap up a song only to find that he wasn’t finished.
And as I said, I wouldn’t stop him from saying any of it. It’s easy to imagine that you know an artist by his or her work even if you know that the work is just an aspect of the artist, typically the aspect that the artist is most comfortable putting forward. With Cohen, the distance between him and his songs feels smaller than with almost anyone else. He never seems to hold back from saying something that will be hard for someone else to hear, or even for himself to hear. He especially seems to be motivated to talk about his own weaknesses and confusion. You listen to Cohen and you suspect that he’s put it all out there, and when he discovers more, that will be out there too.
As I said, Cohen plays the penitent man on stage, but although Cohen’s songs have an abundance of spirituality (plenty of angels as well as a lot of Biblical imagery), I think Cohen’s penitence is about both his transgressions with God as well as with women. It’s difficult to imagine another singer who features the raw sexuality of the randy turtle in the fedora. And it’s not cartoon sexuality, it’s adult and real. While he’s not immune to adding some swagger, Cohen is quick to undercut it with his vulnerability and his need.
Cohen’s love of women is likely the explanation for the show’s low point, background singer Sharon Robinson singing “Alexandra Leaving” solo. Granted, Ms. Robinson has collaborated with Cohen on a number of songs, including “Alexandra Leaving”, and granted the song was a duet on the album it was released on, but with all due respect to Ms. Robinson, she’s not Leonard Cohen. The interlude is not the embarrassment that was Springsteen’s letting his wife sing a verse from her own “Rumble Doll” (as immortalized on Live in New York City) but it was unnecessary and not up to the level of the rest of the show.
In “Tower of Song”, Cohen asks a question of Hank Williams ([H]ow lonely does it get?) and says that Williams hasn’t answered. Instead, Cohen just hears Williams coughing all night long, a hundred levels above him in the Tower of Song. I think Cohen is being too humble there. Based on his body of work, there are very few artists who could reasonably be a hundred levels above Cohen. Let’s all hope it’s a long time before Cohen gets to really ask Williams his question.