The definition of “cool” is a very amorphous thing. Basically, it depends on who’s doing the defining. One thing that a lot of people agree on these days is that Leonard Cohen is cool, and there is nothing in this new live CD set to suggest otherwise. Live in London (Columbia) comes to us from a July 17, 2008 concert that took place at that city’s O2 arena. The then 73-year-old Cohen clearly beguiled his British audience, and that effect is not lost in the transition to the recorded medium.
Blessed with a sartorially and musically resplendent band, and armed with a bushel of great songs from his 40-plus year career, Cohen could have hardly gone wrong, and he doesn’t. The first thing that strikes you is, of course, that voice. Deep as the depths of night, tender when it’s called for, edgy when required by the material, it is the perfect vehicle for these grand songs which have nobly stood the test of time. As Cohen writes in “Tower of Song,” “I was born like this / I had no choice / I was born with the gift of a golden voice …”
To call Cohen’s band tasteful would be something of an understatement. As I listened to their sympathetic accompaniment, I was reminded in some ways of Steely Dan in the sense of the way that the deceptively smooth music masked the darkness of the lyrics. These musicians clearly understand that their role is not to stand out individually, but to make Cohen stand out by playing collectively. That said, Cohen recognizes their contribution by name-checking them at various points in the set. One musician who really does shine is Javier Mas. He plays a variety of stringed instruments, and each of his solos is brilliantly considered. Keyboard player Neil Larsen and guitarist Bob Metzger also have some nice moments.
Though the performance is filled with classics from various eras of Cohen’s career, there can be little doubt that the real standout is his reading of his often-covered gem “Hallelujah,” which features a brilliant arrangement, and a passionate performance from Cohen. Other standouts are the insane proclamations of “First We Take Manhattan,” and “Suzanne,” originally written as a poem about the wife of a friend, and perhaps the first song to bring Cohen to public attention as a songwriter, in my case through a beautiful cover version by Judy Collins.
Cohen is in good spirits throughout, charming, and self-deprecating. He delights the audience when he recounts that the last time he stood on a London stage, in 1994, he was “just a 60-year-old kid with a crazy dream.” There is a reason why Leonard Cohen is one of the most respected musicians in the world among his peers, and it’s on full display here. Acolytes like U2 and REM sing his praises, and with good reason. He is a poet in every sense of the word, weaving together indelible images into a beautiful, and sometimes troubling tapestry. If you haven’t become a believer yet, this is a great place to jump in.
When you look up “cool” in the dictionary, there’s a picture of Leonard Cohen there.