Pico Iyer Journeys

Thanks for the Dance

Through the long hot nights of summer and early autumn I have been listening to the ten newest songs from Leonard Cohen, almost unbearably sad in their themes and beautiful in their bareness, yet turned sultry and smoky and rich with a full-bodied looseness thanks to his collaborator in life and in art, Anjani. The songs on Anjani’s album (as it is officially), Blue Alert, are all about goodbye and “closing time” and passing away from the scene. “Tired” is the word that recurs, and “old,” and the picture that Cohen uses for himself on the back cover (as the album’s “producer”) makes him look out of focus and almost posthumous, fading from our view. Yet when such songs of parting and old age are delivered by a young, fresh, commanding woman singer, they take on a much more complicated resonance. Sweet as much as bitter, with the echo of spring in the dark of early winter.

The album has stayed with me, almost every evening, because the paradoxes with which Leonard Cohen has always played so mischievously, so meticulously, take on new flesh and blood here, and show us a man—with a woman beside, and inside, him—who has passed through his stress and is not going anywhere except toward a final nowhere. The ceremonies of farewell have been mounting in recent years on his recordings. On Ten New Songs, in 2001, Cohen featured his co-singer, Sharon Robinson, on the album cover with him, and her husky, aromatic back-up often drowned out his aging growl. On his last album, Dear Heather, in 2004, he offered a drawing he’d made of a sylph or Muse (who looks very much like Anjani) on the cover—no picture of himself—and on at least two songs let Anjani more or less take over. Now he releases a whole collection of new songs in camouflage, as it were, delivered by his companion, and as if to say that it doesn’t really matter who or where they come from. It’s almost as if the songs, looking at death with a voice that never cracks, taking leave of everything with a due sense that much has been enjoyed, issue from someone already absent, or were sent in by his ghost.

Cohen has always held us by writing songs of naked desire and songs of monastic longing, and playing the one off the other: the ladies’ man who is impossible because, deep down, he’s reaching out for surrender. On his first album, his goodbyes were addressed to the women he was leaving to continue his quest. On recent albums his songs had very much the feel of Mount Baldy Zen Center in L.A., where, living as a monk, he really had taken leave of everything. Now, fully back in the sensual world (sharing a small house in L.A. with his daughter Lorca, Anjani just around the corner), he is writing of physical love with the wholeheartedness of someone who doesn’t have other things on his mind. He’s got his monastic stirrings out of his system, one feels, enough to take another being into his life. “Co-production” has rarely had a warmer implication.

The songs are tinglingly sensual, of course, full of an erotic charge and suggestiveness made keener, more piquant, I’m sure, by years in a monastery (where every swaying of a skirt, every echo of some perfume, becomes potent). In the very first song, “Blue Alert,” we have a woman touching herself in the long night, and soon there are lovers lying down under a mosquito net, “to give and get,” a woman with “my braids and my blouse all undone.” The very slowness of the songs allows one to dwell on every drawn-out syllable. But the shock and excitement of the new work comes, in part, from the fact that some parts are written—and delivered—in a female voice. The shiver is hers, not her aging admirer’s. And when she describes her “yellow jacket with padded shoulders” or how her “shoulders are bare,” one gets an immediacy of detail that in Cohen’s traditional work would have given way to wider philosophizing (or at least to his favorite word, “naked”). Other songs, while sung by Anjani with an ache and a sweetness and a robust sense of elegy that are all her own, sound as if they come from a man—Cohen himself—and sometimes the voice seems to go back and forth within the same song between the woman and the man. Goodbye to dualism!

The process of making a final departure from this world has been on Cohen’s mind for quite a while now. But when I listen to the songs on Blue Alert, I feel that I am seeing, sometimes for the first time, what all the monastic training is about. Even such immortal poets as Derek Walcott (in “The Bounty”) offer nostalgia, wistfulness, as they start to close up shop; even the masterful Philip Roth rages against the dying of the light, bewildered, on the run, taken aback, in his later work (The Dying Animal and Everyman). Cohen, by comparison, wastes no time at all on regret or feeling sorry for himself. This phase has ended, his tunes might be saying. But a new one is being born, Anjani’s ringing voice announces.

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