I Love You, Leonard Cohen.
Hands down, no argument, my favorite Leonard Cohen album is New Skin For The Old Ceremony (1974).
When describing the album, Leonard Cohen had this to say: “It’s good. I’m not ashamed of it and am ready to stand by it. Rather than think of it as a masterpiece, I prefer to look at it as a little gem.”
Since the announcement of his passing last week, I’ve been nose-deep in everything Cohen, and I agree that New Skin is a jewel in his crown, albeit one that’s usually overlooked. Overshadowed by Songs Of Love And Hate (1971), I’m Your Man (1988), and the hulking behemoth that is “Hallelujah” (off of 1984’s Various Positions), I find New Skin to be his strongest album as a whole and--in light of his passing--the best expression of his particular brand of genius.
If there’s a subject matter that Cohen loved above all others, it was the relationship between men and women. Now, we’re not talking “She loves you, ya-ya-ya,” style puppy love. These are adult relationships--complex, intricate, world-altering, and yet always fleeting. The reality that “all you need is love” is actually a big, fat lie, hits us all at some point, blowing our hearts to smithereens. I have always felt that Cohen’s writing has dealt with the shards, the pieces left over, and tried to elevate them to the pedestal where we once placed "love." Breakups, lovers quarrels, affairs, one-night stands, all got the Cohen treatment. By taking the romance out of love, he somehow managed to make the reality of it even more poetic.
Take the opener, “Is This What You Wanted,” which provides a little taste of all of Cohen’s lyrical touchstones. There’s religious imagery, the sanctification of a woman, and plenty of self-loathing (“You were the promise at dawn/I was the morning after”). All the talk of K-y jelly, vaseline, and dirty little boys elevated to something more, made almost holy--what veteran critic Robert Christgau referred to as Cohen’s “studied vulgarity.” The last verse is the most romantic rendering of a breakup I’ve ever come across (“You said you could never love me/I undid your gown”).
Then there’s“Chelsea Hotel #2,” a starkly beautiful ode to his brief relationship with Janis Joplin, so real that it stops you cold. The back and forth of “I need you/I don’t need you” is men and women in a nutshell, spelled out in less than five words. And I don’t know if Cohen ever wrote anything as heartbreaking as that last couplet, “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/That’s all, I don’t even think of you that often.”
“Why Don’t You Try” shows off Cohen’s feminist side, not a trait readily attributed to him given his reputation as a sexual marauder and ladies man (which he often disputed as exaggeration). It’s a great song to listen to post-breakup. There’s something very inspiriting about Cohen saying so convincingly, “I know you’re gonna make it, make it on your own.” It’s even more inspiring when you know that Cohen once said this in a 1968 interview with the New York Times:
“I wish the women would hurry up and take over. It’s going to happen so let’s get it over with. Then we can finally recognize that women really are the minds and the force that holds everything together; and men really are gossips and artists. Then we could get about our childish work and they could keep the world going. I really am for the matriarchy.”
Cohen takes things in a more bluesy direction with “I Tried To Leave You,” another rocky relationship held together by sex and loneliness, with a very charming Cohen singing, “The bed is kind of narrow/But my arms are open wide/And here’s a man still working for your smile,” right after he admits to wanting to leave her in the dust. “Take This Longing” is so beautiful in it’s pleading that you’re rooting for the woman to give in to Cohen’s advances. “Let me see your beauty broken down/Like you would do/For one you love,” and, “Everything depends upon how near you sleep to me,” are lines that would melt me in a millisecond. A girl can only take so much.
The rest of the album is equally lovely—those mentioned above are just my personal favorites— all while stretching out musically more than Cohen had ever done in the past. There’s lazy saxophones, banjos, mandolins, clarinets, all adding a kind of playfulness to Cohen’s ennui-filled baritone and his relentless sensuality. Like Cohen said, it’s a little gem, and the fact that he tended to disown his albums after releasing them serves as the best testament to its quality.
When asked about the longevity of the popular music at the time, Cohen had this to say:
“The basic function of popular music is to create an environment for courting, lovemaking, and doing the dishes. It’s useful because it addresses the heart in the midst of all these activities, and it will always be useful in this very important way.”
The sad fact is Mr. Cohen's gone. But, he lived a full existence, worshiping at the altar of life while urging us to do the same. His songwriting addresses the heart like no other, ensuring that his music and memory will live on and on and on--a gift for all of us. So light a candle, pour a drink, and give this record a spin. Thank you, Field Commander Cohen for your service.