Leonard Cohen: “Live in London”
“I’ve seen the future/ And brother, it’s murder,” sang Leonard Cohen, all those years ago. The great irony of that statement, of course, is that Cohen has always seemed to exist altogether outside of linear time– not just for his reputation as rock’s perpetual old man, and not always in a good way, either. As one of the greatest poets in all of popular music, Cohen brings to his songs a certain sense of the timeless and the eternal, and yet the music has often belonged very explicitly to a particular moment in time, be it the synthetic tones that marred his albums from the 1980s– they sounded dated and out-of-fashion about five minutes after the albums released– or the kitchsy, Casio keyboards from his post-2000 records, tinny sounds that might have made him sound like a has-been lounge crooner in Vegas were his words not still so sharp and lively.
That Cohen embarked on a tour in 2008– his first in a decade and a half– is another out-of-time surprise, as it certainly isn’t what one would expect from an icnreasingly reclusive artist at the age of 74, but this surprise is a most welcome one, not least because it results in the marvelous tour document Live in London— which, as one might imagine from an artist like Cohen, is anything but a mere tour document, or even a major event. In fact, it’s nothing less than the great Leonard Cohen record, as, for the first time, all of his very best songs, spanning his entire career, are collected in one place, and they’re all given the presentation that they deserve: Live, organic, full-band arrangements and vigorous performances, with none of the dated studio sheen that makes some of the original versions hard to take. Live in London bests even The Essential Leonard Cohen set to become, well, the essential Leonard Cohen.
Cohen began as a poet before taking the plunge into music, and his latter-day recordings have been increasingly preoccupied with words over music, but the setting in which Cohen finds himself here is ideal: A full band, including horns and keyboards and female back-up singers, gives the show a laid-back, jazzy vibe that’s warm and endearing and full of great band interplay, but never distracting; Cohen, his voice rough and gravelly, recites these songs more than he sings them, but that’s just fine, as the music is so easy and natural that it’s easy to become lost in his words and melodies. All of his best-known songs are here, as are a few recent highlights, and the result is a feast of provocative words and images that address all of Cohen’s favorite themes– sex, love, death, religion, humanity. It goes without saying that it’s a profound and moving set, but this is no mere tower of song; Cohen’s on-stage persona is gentle and humorous and warm, as he cracks jokes and banters with the audience, keeping this from being a ponderous, Important record– it is, in fact, a joy to listen to.
Of all the ten thousand artists to cover “Hallelujah” over the years, Cohen doesn’t give the song its best reading here– he hams it up a bit too much with his overly dramatic interpretation, robbing it of some of its solemnity and power– but even with that minor complaint, this two-disc, 25-song set is remarkably coherent and consistent, with each song and performance earning its placement here. So whether it’s remembered as one of Cohen’s great achievements or simply a trinket for fans, Live in London stands as the single best serving of Leonard Cohen, a celebration of poetry and performance that’s as profound as it is joyful.