|Jan/Feb 2005 Book Reviews|
Leonard Cohen. Dear Heather.
Columbia Records. 2004.
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Leonard Cohen is probably one of those very few artists actually incapable of recording a bad album, because his presence and his voice are somehow enough. Yet while he really can't ever equal the aging ladies' man persona of I'm Your Man (1988) or the apocalyptic fury of 1992's The Future, Dear Heather is a remarkable work in itself, one that grows on listeners until they hit auto-repeat, and one that is actually a CD of experimental poetry: Cohen, always pushing the envelope, is breaking new ground and exploring new territory at 70. Will it win new fans? Every time anyone hears anything by Leonard Cohen for the first time, he seems to make one, and as he suggested on "I'm Your Man," he really has become all things to all people—his work here as elsewhere operates on multiple levels at once, just as Cohen's persona does for three generations of listeners.
Where 2002's Ten New Songs was somehow one of the sexiest albums ever made at the same time as Cohen turned off his aging ladies' man persona to highlight his vulnerable, brooding and introspective essence, Dear Heather is almost just as sexy because he brings it back again. And as always, it's very tongue-in-cheek and quite poignant at once: "Because of a few songs / Wherein I spoke of their mystery / Women have been kind to me / In my old age," he rasps on "Because Of." The social conscience is there in "Villanelle for Our Time," as is the Zen spirituality on "To a Teacher" and "The Faith."
The title track, like most of the other songs, presents Cohen's perennial preoccupation with memory, time, and loss—yet as he repeats a single quatrain about the image of a beautiful woman with a drink in her hand in his muskiest voice as the keyboards shimmer beneath it easing from key to key, it dawns on one that this sexy loss mantra is actually an ironic comment on the Cohen persona itself.
The album's finest track, however, is its first, "Go No More A-Roving," in which Cohen sets Lord Byron's poem to music—and it is perhaps the finest adaptation of an English Romantic poet ever recorded. Cohen has never been more smooth, and placing the song first on the album underscores Cohen's unique interpretation of Byron: the poem isn't about a relationship breaking up. It's an invitation to take one to a new level of passion.
Sixpence None the Richer. Best of.
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For a band best known in the "secular" community for a single song, "Kiss Me," and a remake of a song by the La's sampled in a television ad for a popular birth control pill, Sixpence amassed quite a following and put out five CDs over a ten-year career. The present disc, the tracks of which were probably selected by the record company, does show the remarkable talent of songwriter Matt Slocum and singer Leigh Nash. It's upbeat, catchy, and it's really just the same song—but hey, I happen to like that song.
The band officially broke up in February as the most popular "Christian" pop/rock band of all time. Yet their "Christian" work was never dogmatic or syrupy like most of that crap—it's catchy just like the "hits," and in fact, the band fared extremely well on Christian radio.
But you see, what they express is an Episcopal form of Christianity—really quite different from what Bible Belters and Baptists are into. And this is what killed Sixpence: other Christians. People in the market who were jealous and suspicious of the band's wide mainstram appeal, and people out of it who were dismissive and just downright hateful. Slocum and Nash finally just got sick of it, stopped giving a fiddler's dick, and went on to other projects—in Leigh's case, being a mother, and in Matt's, a new band.
I doubt many Baptists read my reviews, or Church of Christers, but you never know. Yet I find it sad and ironic and hey! I don't believe everything Episcopalians do either—I believe it in the same way I believe King Lear, and either that makes sense to you or it doesn't. But bands as cool as Sixpence (they got the name from a story in C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, BTW) don't come along every day, and the next time one does, the Right will kill it, too.
John Lennon. Acoustic.
Capital Records. 2004.
* * * *
Perhaps more than anything else—peace, love, drugs, social activism—John Lennon has always represented loneliness, and the anger and isolation accompanying it. One sees it in his earliest Beatles songs, such as "Help," through the escapism of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "I Am the Walrus," into the spiritual yearning of "Across the Universe" and "Imagine" to the vulnerability of the very last songs he recorded. As such, it's fitting that we finally have an album of songs with just him and his acoustic guitar, in mostly primitive recordings—the album he said he wanted to record in the 1979 Playboy interviews, in a way. And while it's uneven and imperfect, it's who John Lennon was, and it sounds as if he's sitting on your couch, playing just for you.
Acoustic is not the kind of album you want to listen to every night, or around a lot of people. The liner notes are the lyrics themselves with chord diagrams, subtly encouraging the listener to play along, or learn to—and the first and greatest song on the album, "Working Class Hero," is actually not difficult. Recorded on different equipment at different times during the 1970s, the album spans from a live version of "Imagine" to a demo of "Watching the Wheels." Yet it's most poignant moments are versions of the less well-known songs, six of which have never been released in any form, such as two songs from Lennon's concert for Irish freedom fighter John Sinclair in Ann Arbor in 1971.
This is who he was—the incredible vulnerability, the sound of his voice cracking on the beautiful "Real Love," the harrowing fury of "Cold Turkey" and "God": "God is a concept / By which we measure our pain."
The greatest moments on the album, for me, are very substandard audio recordings of two songs I'd never heard before, "Look at Me" and "What You Got," one song questioning his identity and another pleading for forgiveness, both melodically as good as "Julia" or anything else he did "solo" with the Beatles.
Twenty-four years after his murder, John Lennon is still revered as a Christ figure by many. And for me, in the cases of both men, their greatest achievement was not how they died, it was the time they spent alone, praying in the desert.