Amid the unfurling poetry, jazzed up arrangements, and dry production of New Skin For The Old Ceremony is a line that holds weight like no other: “Well, never mind, we are ugly, but we have the music,” whether it is a direct quote from Janis Joplin, as Leonard Cohen’s tale surrounding the song seems to suggest, will never really be known. But what is undoubted is that it delineated the backbone of Cohen’s work and a fair chunk of the post-counterculture notion of alternative art.
Although tales of courtship and lovers run riot in his music, it has always been for the disenfranchised and, ultimately, the alone. In actual truth, his drawl doesn’t even sound as good when mixed with a chorus of chatter, and his candour proves as prickling as an unexpected sex scene in a movie on Christmas Day with the family. He started as a poet, and rarely has anyone written music with the same direct intended delivery of a book. His recorded work yearns for the sanctity of a quiet room where it can breeze around unhindered by the clamour of life that he sings of.
Although this line might have been uttered in a hotel room with the intention of it never leaving, it has such a rich universality that it transcends the song, never mind New York’s most bohemian overnight domicile. It is a kindly comforting mantra for all of the drifting demimonde. Cohen’s music, and indeed much of folk in general, is not the anthem of winners. ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ is never going to grace a Peloton advert or be used by an investment company. As Bob Dylan once said: “Folk music is just a bunch of fat people.”
However, if you strip away the brutal adjectives of “ugly” and “fat” put forth by the unflinching duo and replace it with something like ‘everyday’ you are left with the second half of the line that celebrates the beauty of the songs and how they offer salvation for the mass proletariat.
And there is a wider sense of Cohen’s lyric that reflects the period when it was written. As another of his fleeting romancer’s, Joni Mitchell, once said: “You watched that high of the hippie thing descend into drug depression. Right after Woodstock, then we went through a decade of basic apathy where my generation sucked its thumb and then just decided to be greedy and pornographic.”
In truth, Mitchell’s take seems a little bit gratuitous. Whereas Cohen’s line, and indeed the whole of New Skin…, proclaims the humble triumph of the beautiful music that the counterculture movement had to fall back on. “Never mind… we have the music,” wasn’t so much an acquiesce to apathy but a slink back onto a bed of pillow-propped contentment, where the subversive words of the era’s troubadours remained as poignant as ever even if they hadn’t toppled the empires of power.
This celebration of music is the most notable theme on the album as a whole. Gone are the sparse folk puritan stylings of his incomparable Songs trilogy or the Nashville sound that was stretched for on his Live Songs LP. In their place are banjos, honky-tonk piano riffs, orchestral scores and flourishings from his band, The Army.
If there had been a notion on his previous trio of masterpieces – albeit a notion that doesn’t let them down – that the music was merely a vehicle for his poetry, then that was completely rubbished by the rich exploration of sonic prose put forward here. A case in point is the gloves-off screaming crescendo of ‘Leaving Green Sleeves’. Credit here is due to producer John Lissauer who pushed Cohen into new realms and opened the door to the rest of his career without it ever seeming like a hammy reinvention.
A change of tact is not an easy thing for someone like Leonard Cohen, whose entire artistic gestalt was about repeating cycles, but he couldn’t extol the same joyously broken record forever. With New Skin For The Old Ceremony, he simply, and necessarily, tweaks things a little, turning tales of hotel beds into something grander while still very much undercovers. Thus, the arrangements are befittingly upscaled while still sparse enough for his words to haunt the empty rooms they ring around.
While the irony is that he may never have bettered his initial trilogy of records, this is an album that runs them very close. And in importantly, when it triumphs, it scintillatingly soars, and when it slides slightly towards the ugly side, it still does so celebrating the music. If this was the next chapter for Cohen, then he was crafting a book that fans would never put down.