Ten New Songs
Sony Records: 2001
Leonard Cohen’s songs, a friend said recently, offer “music to die by,” and as soon as I heard that, I realized one source of their Buddhist radiance. Death, loss, and renunciation toll through every stanza of the benign hymns of passage on his latest album,Ten New Songs, and yet they’re accepted, even embraced, as warmly as the love and life that have preceded them. When a poet of sixty-seven releases a new set of songs, it’s a safe bet that they won’t be about the classic pop themes of “Love, love me do,” or “Baby, we were born to run,” and indeed these new songs are all about the need for letting go. Cohen sings with the sober wisdom of one who’s been living with death for quite a while now.
When the record begins—as is more and more the case as Cohen gets on one’s first response is, likely, shock. His voice sounds as if it’s emerging from the far side of the grave: a distance, muffled growl, as of a door slowly opening (or, in this case, more likely, a door creaking shut). The sound is spare, to the point of minimalism; the beat, even more than in early Cohen, is funereal. His croaks issue forth over a basic, leaden drone that sounds as if it were recorded (as it was) in a friend’s backyard late at night; much of the time, the singer’s bass profundities are almost drowned Out by the sweeter sounds of his colleague Sharon Robinson (her husband, Bob Metzger, is the only musician on the record, playing a faraway guitar). Whatever rock ‘n’ roll was intended to convey, I think, it was never meant to carry a sound as worn and old and rough as this.
Yet as you begin to settle into the very particular mood that develops—that of a cabin high up on a chill mountaintop in the dark, a single light on inside—you see that it is in the raggedness that the radiance can be found. There is a crack in everything, as Cohen (following Emerson) sings on a recent album, and that’s how the light gets in. The opening song here, “My Secret Life,” tells us, in effect, what to expect—for the secret life this singer confesses to is not one of venality and deceit and ambition, but the opposite. His secret, at this point in his life, is not that he’s fallen, but that he occasionally manages to rise above it all. The mystic’s way in every tradition is to invert the world by remaking the very terms with which it presents itself (turning its words upside down as a way to rum its values inside Out); Cohen’s secret life (since he’s as impatient with the dogmas of the monastery as with those of the world) is the place where he makes love in his mind and refuses to see things in black and white.
As the songs go on, you see that, at some level, that’s what they’re all about. Babylon and Bethlehem-his favorite themes, his favorite places—but seen in a new light, because Babylon looks different once you’ve been to Bethlehem. Cohen first met Joshu Sasaki Roshi roughly thirty years ago, and since then they’ve been drinking buddies, friends, and in their maverick way, student and teacher. For much of the nineties Cohen actually went to live near Sasaki at his Rinzai Zen monastery in the high, dark, spartan hills behind Los Angeles, cleaning up, doing odd jobs, and cooking for the Zen master. He says (almost with pride) that he’s come down from the mountaintop now—”I am what I am,” announces one song, and another speaks of how certain “gifts” can’t be exchanged (his gift, one assumes, being for worldliness)—and yet one feels that he would only leave the monastery once he was sure that the monastery would not entirely leave him. For much of the record it feels as if Mount Baldy Zen Center itself—or the meditation hall—is growling over the music.
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