Silence & Junk: Leonard Cohen’s Ten New Songs

And like this, the old field commander came down from his mountain and snuck quietly back into the war. By October 2001, when Ten New Songs appeared almost out of nowhere as a balm for the faithful, all but the most ardent of Cohen-watchers had given up on ever hearing anything from the man again.

lc1

Nine years had passed since his last LP, The Future, an album which, as the years crept by and Cohen showed little inclination of recording another, had come to sound less like wry, troubling prophecy and more like his sweeping and caustic kiss-off to the whole racket. There had been gaps between records before, of course – half a decade between Recent Songs and Various Positions, and an average of four years between the albums that had followed. (For fans of Cohen the poet, meanwhile, the patient wait for a new collection to follow 1984’s Book Of Mercy had by that point stretched to 17 years and counting.)

But there were reasons for suspecting that, this time, the retreat was final. For one thing, during his absence, a millennium had turned, a psychic watershed which, along with the rapacious rise of the internet and its accelerating age of the instant, had the effect of telescoping the years. For another thing, there was the simple fact that Cohen was growing older. As he approached his 67th birthday, the idea that, after so long away, he might suddenly choose to resume life in a business over which he’d long been conflicted appeared increasingly doubtful.

That conflict fed into the third reason that the return of Leonard Cohen seemed highly unlikely. Famously, he hadn’t simply stopped recording. He had entered a monastery.

Performing had long been a kind of torture for Cohen, but the extended tour across Europe, the US and Canada in support of The Future, while rapturously received, had reportedly been one of his least happiest and most draining experiences of life on the road. He later admitted he was clinging on to the bottle for support. Perhaps not coincidentally, by the time that tour was over, so too was his red carpet relationship with actress Rebecca De Mornay, the woman he had intended to marry.

At this point, in late 1993, Cohen appeared to turn his back on music and the noise of the modern world, to head off instead on a quieter search into the eternal and the ephemeral. Packing a few belongings, he removed himself entirely from the scene, moving into a tiny wooden hut in the Mount Baldy Zen Center, a Buddhist retreat established in the spartan, shabby remains of an old Boy Scout camp high amid the stony slopes of the San Gabriel mountain range miles to the east of LA.

Cohen had been a frequent visitor to Mount Baldy for years – he first spent time there in 1972 – and had grown increasingly close to its master, Roshi Joshu Sasaki. Now he chose to devote himself full time to his old teacher. Working as cook and personal aide to Roshi, who turned 87 the year Cohen took up residency, he submitted to the retreat’s intense, austere regime of long days made up of meditation sessions punctuated by domestic chores, rolling up his sleeves to rub along elbow to anonymous elbow with his brother monks and sister nuns. After three years, in 1996, he was ordained a full-fledged Zen Buddhist monk. For fans holding out hope of any new songs, the name he was given at ordination was both apt and ominous: Jikan, meaning “silence.”

And yet, for anyone keeping close watch, there were  signals that the silence wasn’t absolute. Around 1995, there had been a few brief reports of another album in preparation, as well as fresh whispers concerning a long-rumoured new volume of poetry to be titled Book Of Longing. (Or “Book Of Prolonging” as Cohen’s family and friends would teasingly come to call it.) Neither happened, but two new songs did sneak out as bonus tracks on the 1997 compilation More Best Of: the droll, spry confessional “Never Any Good,” recorded with a session band in LA in 1995, and “The Great Event,” a lullingly eerie piece of pared-down experimentalism built from a keyboard, backwards Beethoven and a computerised female vocal which suggested a combination of Kubrick’s 2001 and some strange, giggling ritual of old magic.

More significantly, the same year More Best Of appeared, Cohen, who had a small, aging Macintosh computer and a dial-up modem in his hut up there on the mountain, began posting online contributions to The Leonard Cohen Files, a fan website he had discovered and admired, which had been set up by a Finnish fan two years earlier. Over the next four years, he would regularly publish new poems through the site, several of which would eventually be reworked as lyrics to form the backbone of his first album of the 21st century, as well as appearing as poems again when Book Of Longing was at last published in 2006.

Cohen gave up permanent residence on Mount Baldy in the first month of 1999. He would return for short spells, but spent much of that last year of the millennium on the move alone with the several hundred poems he had amassed in various states of completion. There were months in India, visiting with another spiritual teacher in Mumbai, and there were journeys to retrace his own footsteps through old haunts in Montreal and on Hydra. But as the century ended, he was back in his house in LA, and finally ready to record again – at his own pace, and on his own terms.

As intimate a record as Cohen ever made, the sound of Ten New Songs is to a large degree the product of the cocoon-like circumstances of its recording. It’s the sound of Cohen taking a step back into the material world (a recurring theme in the lyrics), yet not fully emerging from his seclusion: his time on the mountain is the background hum through many of the songs.

To work on the album, he turned to an old and trusted friend, Sharon Robinson, the singer and songwriter who had first signed on with him as backing vocalist on 1979’s Field Commander Cohen tour, and to whose son Cohen had become godfather. The pair had co-written songs before – their first, “Summertime” was recorded by Diana Ross in 1987, and Robinson was behind the throb and pulse of one of Cohen’s most famous mid-period tunes, “Everybody Knows”– but with Ten New Songs they would embark on perhaps the deepest collaboration of Cohen’s career. He described the resulting LP as “a duet.”

Interviewed for a 2016 New Yorker profile piece on Cohen, Bob Dylan sought to draw attention to Cohen’s underappreciated gift for melody, “along with his lyrics, his greatest genius.” But for this record, Cohen relinquished melody completely to Robinson, who produced, composed and arranged all the tunes, and, save for a couple of guitar flourishes on the opening “In My Secret Life” and a string part on “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” played all the music.

Another woman with a long history with Cohen would also take a significant role, Leanne Ungar, who engineered and mixed the record, and whose working relationship with him dated back to 1974’s New Skin For The Old Ceremony. (The guitar part on “Secret Life” is by Ungar’s husband, Bob Metzger, another veteran who dated back to Field Commander Cohen, and a regular in Cohen’s band until his final tours.)

Between them, Cohen, Robinson and Ungar created the album in a kind of easygoing domestic womb. Swapping files back and forth, the recording was done in their homes, split between the small studio Robinson had built over her garage, and the even smaller set up Cohen had installed in the room above his own, a space he dubbed Small Mercies Studio. Taking it song by song, initial work would begin in Cohen’s kitchen – often over meals he prepared, keeping up the habit he’d developed as Roshi’s chef – as he presented Robinson his lyrics and they’d generate ideas for rhythms while Robinson would sketch melodies

Robinson would take the songs home to begin working up the music, drawing on soul, reggae and R&B, and then Cohen would record his vocals over the results, alone in his little room. In another hangover from his days in the monastery, he’d gotten into the practice of rising at 4AM, and so he sang close to the mic, holding his ever-deepening purr very soft and very quiet, so as not to disturb any of his sleeping neighbours. The result is an album on which it sounds as if he is whispering to you from somewhere inside your own head.

Robinson had planned that many of her vocals and keyboard parts would be only there as guides, to eventually be replaced with other instrumentation, but Cohen insisted on releasing the songs in their raw early states. All basic drum machines, programmed bass and washing synthesiser sounds, the effect is at once airbrushed yet cheap, high-gloss but low-tech. It kindles faint sense memories of the curious hotel-bar-mitzvah-band-with-a-Casio sounds of I’m Your Man, while the rudimentary domestic set-up offers a 21st century DIY electronic equivalent to the acoustic bedroom troubadour ambience of Cohen’s earliest records.

The highly synthetic musical setting intensifies the extreme, unvarnished mortal presence of Cohen’s voice, which is often singing precisely about mortality, how to live while always facing what he calls “your invincible defeat.”

The opening “In My Secret Life” sets the pace, sonically and philosophically, dealing in the day-to-day compromises of existence: “I smile when I’m angry, I cheat and I lie, I do what I have to do to get by…” But, at odd with the lyrics, the mood is serene, soothing. (Certainly, coming a few weeks after 9/11, as the 21st century geared up, hearing Cohen breath “Looked through the paper, makes you want to cry, nobody cares if the people live or die” was strangely comforting, while the next line, “And the dealer wants you thinking that it’s either black or white,” remains fit for service in the Trumped-up, post-truth age.)

Elsewhere – “I finally got my orders, I’ll be marching through the morning, marching through the night, moving ‘cross the borders…” – the lyrics recall the Secret Army stance of 1988’s “First We Take Manhattan,” which is perhaps not surprising; Cohen had been working on the song since that year.

“A Thousand Kisses Deep” was another song years in the writing, going through countless versions dating to the early 1990s. Assembled from simple lines delivered with the hypnotic precision of an old tango master’s footwork, it is a bottomless song, again about being trapped among the demands and distractions of the material world while sometimes, in instants, glimpsing something else flickering; Cohen fleetingly references “Stopping by Woods,” Robert Frost’s poem about the desire to lose himself in the still, deep darkness of the trees, but getting pulled back onto the road by “promises to keep.”

Cohen introduces the name Boogie Street here as his metaphor for the daily grind, the fallen Babylon of the world. He adopted it from the nickname given to Bugis Street in Singapore, once famed as a gathering place for trans prostitutes, and compares his own work to “turning tricks.” He revives the phrase for “Boogie Street,” which on one level seems again about his guarded return to the marketplace (“I’ve tuned the old banjo…I’m wanted at the traffic-jam…”), but, as a companion piece to/ continuation of “Thousand Kisses” serves also to underline the notion that neither song is quite finished, or ever could be.

Creativity and incompletion are strong themes – “Forget your perfect offering,” as someone once sang – and raise their heads again in “That Don’t Make It Junk,” a deceptive, rueful little sketch about the drive to try and the inevitability of failing. Cohen had suggested it to Robinson as a country song and she responds with twilight pedal steel sounds, while he performs a subtle drunk routine, voice blearier by the verse as he recalls how he “fought against the bottle.”

“Love Itself” comes straight from his little room on Mount Baldy, a moment of Zen contemplation describing dust motes in a beam of sunlight, drifting in on keyboards that suggest slow dances in Twin Peaks. But entwined with the Buddhism always comes Judaism – Cohen here references the “nameless” creator who forms life from such dust, and the song itself finally collapses into a formless state, as Cohen runs out of words and begins humming.

Deeper yet, “By The Rivers Dark” is an intense, complex, conflicted reworking of Psalm 137, about the Jews’ exile from Jerusalem into Babylon and, yet again, the yearning for some ideal Holy City; beneath its carefully restrained production flex the muscles of the kind of tune The Bad Seeds might raise hell with. Elsewhere “Alexandra Leaving,” a close reworking of “The God Abandons Antony,” a 1911 poem by Constantine P Cavafy, is about a different kind of loss, the end of love.

The album itself ends with “The Land Of Plenty,” a soothing, apologetic little anthem that becomes a kind of protest prayer for us all, sung by a man who first admits he has no qualifications to even sing it: “Don’t really have the courage to stand where I must stand. Don’t really have the temperament to lend a helping hand…”

Don’t believe it. With this spare, swarming, deceptively serene and deeply human album, Cohen came down off the mountain and returned to Babylon as exactly the singer some of us needed to hear.