Monday, January 17, 2005

Dear Heather - This Is Leonard

Leonard Cohen's oeuvre is rich and deep, betokening a talent reaching beyond chart-toppers, as most anyone familiar with his music can attest to. The songwriting, the gentle melodies and the overall sense of good music emanating from his songs makes one feel, well, good.

His most recent album, "Dear Heather", is no exception.It is rich, treacly and sublime, yet breath-takingly sensual and direct. The selection of poems set to music range from his own compositions like "Undertow" and "Because Of" to Byron's "Go No More A-Roving", perhaps an old age lament. The album itself feels like a memory-book to friends loved and lost - the liner notes reference departed friends, colleagues and poets from Montreal.

1. "Go No More A-Roving": The Byron lyric is dedicated to Irving Layton, Nobel Literature Prize nominee and poet. Backing vocals are by Sharon Robinson, with an occasional saxophone melody. The song is light, gentle, and 'made for loving'. Irving Layton's poems were matter-of-fact, direct, and spoke to the heart, much like this song. One of his poems, "The Tamed Puma" goes,

"Women and poems are my sole chance here
to give expelled breath shape and contour
and fable it with meaning.
I place on the brow of every woman I love
a crown made from the choicest words;
I dress her like a woodland queen
in trope and metaphor."


2. "Because Of": A Cohen original, this song references his appreciation of women, topic of many of his songs.
"Because of a few songs
Wherein I spoke of their mystery,
Women have been
Exceptionally kind
to my old age."
This song features Anjani Thomas, who appears on many pieces in this album. She is no stranger to Leonard's music and life - being a close friend since the 1980s, having appeared on many of his albums, besides being an accomplished musician in her own right.

3. "The Letters": Sharon Robinson, another old friend, appears with Leonard in this love song of letters sent, meant, and lost. Sharon responds to his appeal with her own perspective on letters received, read, treasured and love spent. The song tapers off into a low, low tone with Leonard whispering his words of music and love.
"You never liked to get
The letters that I sent
But now you've got the gist
Of what my letters meant.
You're reading them again,
The ones you didn't burn.
You press them to your lips
My pages of concern."


4. "Undertow": The song begins with an extended, smouldering musical riff on the sax, then Anjani Thomas takes up this abstract piece about the ability of the heart to be carried away by forces greater than the self, turning the 'heart the shape of a begging bowl'.
"I set out one night
When the tide was low
There were signs in the sky
But I did not know
I'd be caught in the grip of the undertow."


5. "Morning Glory": A poem capturing the zeitgeist of censorship, the portents of a new age and a transcendental moment - leading to the garden, the backyard, the driveway and - morning glory.

6. 'On That Day': Leonard remembers 'that day', 9/11/01, when 'They wounded New York'. He cites the various reasons - 'Our women unveiled, Our slaves and our gold', all inadequate, for the tragedy, and describes his own response - 'holding the fort/Since that day/They wounded New York'. He then asks the vital question,
'Did you go crazy
Or did you report
On that day
On that day
They wounded New York?'

The background features, appositely, a single-note bass track.

7. "Villanelle For Our Time': F R Scott, Canadian poet defined modernist poetry in Canada, and established a space for subsequent poetic works. His essay "New Poems For Old" in 1931 described the position of poetry in the modern arts, noting, "... the modernist poet, like the socialist, has thought through present forms to a new and more suitable order. He is not concerned with destroying, but with creating, and being a creator he strikes terror into the hearts of the old and decrepit who cannot adjust themselves to that which is to be. The modernist poet frequently uses accepted forms, and only discards them when he discovers that they are unsuited to what he has to say. Then he creates a new form, groomed to his thought."

His poem is set to music, with the liner notes featuring a drawing of the poet(1899-1985) reading in bed, by his wife. Marian Scott. The song is done in a formal way, almost as if it were an actual poetry reading captured on tape. The poem might, indeed, be an anthem for our times.
"From bitter searching of the heart,
Quickened with passion and with pain
We rise to play a greater part."


8. "There For You": A standard Leonard Cohen piece, reminscent of many of his earlier songs, it can be read as a prayer to 'G_d', as Leonard uses the term elsewhere in this album.
'...Eating food
And drinking wine
A body that
I thought was mine
Dressed as Arab
Dressed as Jew
O mask of iron
I was there for you'


9. 'Dear Heather': The title song is the most sparse verbally, yet quite emotive. A passing glance at an elegant woman becomes a treasured memory image, returned to often.
Dear Heather
Please walk by me again
With a drink in your hand
And your legs all white
From the winter

10. 'Nightingale': An elegy for Carl Anderson - Judas, artist and musicman, who passed away in 2004 - done as a duet with Anjani, who considered him a major influence on her career. She said of him. "Carl was a dear, loyal friend: principled, intense, dynamic, and filled with love. While he once called me “the Hawaiian sun at its soft edges,” Carl was the sun's blazing, impassioned core." Leonard captures the essence of the nightingale's song in this piece, with layered beauty, utilizing a couple of unusual instruments in the process.
"I built my house beside the wood
So I could hear you singing
And it was sweet and it was good
And love was all beginning
Fare thee well my nightingale
'Twas long ago I found you
Now all your songs of beauty fall
The forest closes 'round you."


11. "To A Teacher": Dedicated to the powerful Canadian poet, A M Klein, whose poetry illustrates the beauty of Montreal, the richness of the Judaic experience, and the human condition. Klein was called "the first contributor of authentic Jewish poetry to the English language." This song, written by Leonard, is complex verse, touching on 'a long pain ending without a song to prove it', 'confusing the Messiah in a mirror' and 'the turning mind, a radar signal'. The Jewish experience, too, is transubstantiated into it's essence, with a jazz beat.
"Let me cry Help beside you, Teacher.
I have entered under this dark roof
As fearlessly as an honoured son
Enters his father's house"


12. "The Faith": Based on a Quebec folk song, this piece is about 'the sea', 'the sun', 'the club, the wheel, the mind', asking fundamental questions about the indefatigability of the human spirit, and why there is 'A cross on every hill/A star, a minaret/So many graves to fill' and finally, 'O love, aren't you tired yet?'

13. "Tennessee Waltz": Leonard wraps up the set with a 1985 live recording of the classic tune, that has an additional verse by him - one that perhaps sums up the darkness in the soul when love has passed by, time spent.
"She comes dancing through the darkness
To the Tennessee Waltz
And I feel like I'm falling apart
And it's stronger than drin
And it's deeper than sorrow
This darkness she's left in my heart"


In all, an excellent album, comparable to his earlier works, further solidifying his stature as a leading songwriter, septugenarian and humanist.



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Time traveler, world traveler, book reader