In today’s world of ready-made pop stars that arrive on the scene in a flash and disappear just as quickly, it’s reassuring to know there are musicians who’re still going strong after decades, producing exactly the kind of work that they want. A few of these artists who immediately spring to mind are Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, but there’s another legend who’s been around just as long and who’s still churning out musical masterpieces. His name is Leonard Cohen and at the age of 80, he’s just released his sixteenth studio album, Can’t Forget, a collection of live gems from his recent world tour. This album is just the latest offering in a staggering body of work which includes some of the greatest songs ever written.
If you’re not familiar with Leonard Cohen by name then chances are you know him by what is undoubtedly his most well-known song, “Hallelujah,” which also may just be the most covered song in popular music, even appearing in the first Shrek film. If “Hallelujah” was Cohen’s only contribution to the music world it’d still be enough to ensure his place in music history, but luckily it’s just one gem amongst countless others which speak directly to the pleasures and pains of the human condition.
Cohen was a strange arrival in the music world when he appeared on the scene in 1967. Prior to that, he was a highly acclaimed poet and novelist in his home country of Canada and when he turned his talents towards songwriting at the age of 33, the music world would never be quite the same. Amidst the year of flower power and politically charged music, Songs of Leonard Cohen, featuring classics such as “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne,” quietly appeared out of nowhere as if from another world. Featuring stark instrumentation, most notably Cohen’s flamenco guitar playing, and enigmatic and deeply poetic lyrics, the album was an anomaly even among the creative renaissance of the mid-sixties. Much of the album’s singularity comes from its inability to be easily categorized. The music itself, as well as the vivid, poetic imagery and Cohen’s distinctive monotone voice gave the songs an ethereal, unearthly feel. Cohen didn’t so much sing the words as chant them, which lends a mesmerizing quality to the songs.
In the years which followed, Cohen continued to release albums which expanded his exploration of complex themes such as love and hate, war and peace, sexuality and spirituality. As the eighties dawned, Cohen (who’d only enjoyed marginal popularity), began to fade into obscurity as a relic of a bygone age, so he changed his sound, adopting current electronic instruments such as synthesizers and drum machines and used to supreme effect on his 1988 masterpiece I’m Your Man, which gave us the classic title track as well as the legendary “Everybody Knows” and “Tower of Song.” The album marked a renaissance in Cohen’s career and his subsequent albums continued to refine his new sound while continuing to deliver profound lyrics, often vaguely dealing with contemporary political and social angst.
In 2008, the 73 year old Cohen announced he’d be embarking on a world tour, his first in fifteen years. The initial cause was to recoup his life savings after his onetime manager, Kelley Lynch embezzled over $5 million from Cohen’s retirement fund. Since then Cohen’s toured with his band just about every year up until 2013, putting on nearly three hour shows with multiple encores. In 2012, he released Old Ideas, his first new album in eight years, followed by Popular Problems in 2014. Both albums demonstrated beyond a doubt that Cohen still had profound, insightful things to say and a captivating way to say them. His voice, which dropped to a booming baritone after years of smoking and drinking, sounds as strong and commanding as ever. With the release of Can’t Forget, his third album in only three years, it’s clear that the 80 year old Cohen is busier than ever and has no intention of packing it in anytime soon.
Featuring a mix of his more obscure songs performed live across the world by his excellent nine piece band, Can’t Forget is an intimate showcase of Cohen’s ever masterful performance of his exceptional work. In addition to lesser known gems such as the humorous album opener, “Field Commander Cohen,” the moving “Light as the Breeze,” and the beautiful rendition of his classic “Joan of Arc,” the album premieres two new Cohen songs, “Never Gave Nobody Trouble,” and “Got a Little Secret,” two bluesy numbers with funny and insightful lyrics. Along with Old Ideas and Popular Problems, Can’t Forget is a must have for both longtime Cohen fans and those just discovering this exceptional and profound musician. I think it’s safe to say fans of Cohen can look forward to many more years of brilliant music and poetry from this once in a lifetime artist.