Death stalks the 14th album of 82-year-old Leonard Cohen, but thankfully he’s not going without singing about it first
Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker ****
Melanie C: Version Of Me **
Red Girl Records
Joan As Policewoman & Benjamin Lazar Davis: Let It Be You ***
Much has been made of Leonard Cohen’s recent admission to the New Yorker that he was “ready to die”. The 82-year-old songwriting titan is feeling his age and, it appears, the recent death of his muse Marianne Ihlen (the inspiration for So Long, Marianne), writing to her to say he wouldn’t be far behind her.
So it’s no surprise that death stalks his latest album – his 14th in all, and third in six years. But then, death has always been one of Cohen’s most fertile topics and here he offers nine ways to say goodbye. Unlike, say, Johnny Cash, preparing to meet his maker with grizzled nobility despite his obvious frailty, the eternally urbane Cohen toys more with his topic.
You Want It Darker, produced by his son Adam Cohen, is wry, romantic, ambivalent by turns, and always intimate, thanks to the prominent mixing of Cohen’s extraordinarily low, husky voice, intoning right in the listener’s ear.
The opening title track is a gorgeous but somewhat ominous hymn-like lament, replete with religious imagery and a solemn synagogue backing chorus. Cohen offers up the Jewish prayer “hineni hineni, I’m ready my Lord” but also tethers proceedings to the earthly realm with an almost spoken word declaration that “if you are the dealer, I’m out of the game”.
The tentative piano ballad Treaty comes across as a relationship post-mortem, infused with regret, but
the tone lightens and the mood swings on the country-inflected number On The Level, another address to a partner, this one featuring his trademark backing chorus of soft sirens. If I Didn’t Have Your Love, meanwhile, is a gruff God Only Knows with a mellow guitar line.
He returns to his previous valedictory allusion on Leaving The Table (“I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game”) but this time delivered with droll humour, sumptuously twanging guitar and the tender sway of early rock’n’roll. The theme of departure also informs Traveling Light, with its narrator getting ready to hit the road, possibly for a bit of Sicilian romance judging by the Mediterranean troubadour arrangement, which is delicately enhanced by tremulous violin and lullaby backing vocals.
There is more keening solo violin, as well as a sense of fragility and resignation, on the soft, stealthy It Seemed The Better Way and a distinctly folky flavour to the strings on Steer Your Way. As usual, the music is executed with grace and precision, nowhere more so than the string quartet reprise of Treaty on which the album bows out.
Next to Cohen, everything else sounds like a rude awakening or bland escapism. Spice Girls reunion holdout Melanie C continues her respectably successful solo career with the mediocre Version Of Me, featuring her usual trancey dancey pop efforts, which stand or fall on their hooks. Anymore is an obvious choice as a single, given its relatively lively disco arrangement, but it’s difficult to muster enthusiasm for the likes of functional soul pop number Loving You Better or, by extension, her principled determination to go her own way rather than follow the reunion lucre.
Let It Be You is more likely to catch the ear, being a tastefully quirky collaboration between Brooklyn musicians Joan As Policewoman & Benjamin Lazar Davis, which has reportedly been “loosely inspired” by Central African Republic Pygmy musical patterns – though the intoxicating electro pop of the title track, high, heady vocals on Satellite and the slow-build sweep of Station are altogether more reminiscent of St Vincent.
Freeland Barbour and Friends: The Music and the Land ****
Recorded at Queen’s Hall and Celtic Connections concerts launching The Music and the Land, Freeland Barbour’s magnificent book of tunes and reminiscences, this album captures the respected accordionist, band-leader and producer joined by a host of musical acquaintances, not least his own Occasionals dance band colleagues. Here is Barbour, plus his Silly Wizard successor Phil Cunningham, enjoying high jinks on twin boxes, or providing a solemn undertone with pianist Jane Gardner to Cailean Maclean’s declamatory Oran Badantarbairt while, amid the many instrumentals, Billy Kay gives a droll recitation and Martin Carthy sings his telling updating of the Napoleonic war song My Son John.
As a composer Barbour has a fine ear for an air, as in his elegiac Remember Them With Gladness, while piper Ross Ainslie delivers his own tribute to the late Gordon Duncan with characteristic fire.
Bach: Christmas Oratorio *****
John Butt’s Dunedin Consort does it again. This red hot interpretation of the six cantatas that make up Bach’s Christmas Oratorio holds the attention from the word go. The opening chorus, Jauchzet frohlocket, hits you like a lightning bolt, Butt’s infectious energy and exhilarating musicianship infusing Bach’s joyous music with utterly compelling brilliance. The string articulation is as sharp as a tack; the trumpets punch out with lustrous exuberance; the fearsome timpani strikes are like Exocets. On top of which, the small chorus of singers – one to a part – is intimate and resplendent in equal measure. It’s a reading of Bach that never hangs around. Butt lets the music flow with natural gusto, and yet finds tenderness and spiritual nuance in the more reflective arias. If anyone ever doubted the cohesive power of this oratorio, here is the proof. Once you switch it on, you won’t want to put this knock-out recording off.