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The Field Commander returns: Reflection upon Leonard Cohen's 'Ten New Songs'

@SamWKemp

With Ten New Songs, Leonard Cohen broke a near decade-long silence. It had been nine years since the release of his last record, The Future, by which time most had come to regard that 1992 venture as the musical equivalent of a french exit. 

Cohen had grown weary with the whole racket. The touring, the endless studio sessions, the promotion: there was little of the zest he’d fallen in love with back in the ’60s. Although that being said, it’s not as though the singer-songwriter hadn’t been absent before. In fact, the rhythm of this absence come to form part of his mythos, marking him out as a sort of wanderer who returns from his pilgrimage, time and time again, with new perspectives and innumerable musical offerings. 

There was a five-year gap between Recent Songs and Various Positions, for example. As a man who had spent much of his early life writing Joycian works of fiction, it seemed an essential part of the whole Cohen-ambience.

But, with the dawn of a new millennium and still no sign of Cohen, it seemed quite likely that he’d run for the hills. The assumption wasn’t far off the mark. In 1994, the singer had unexpectedly retreated to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles to spend time with his Zen Master Joshu Sasaki. He would spend five years there, learning and developing a new way of being in the world. 

In a 2001 interview, the musician shed some light on his decision to retreat from public view: “Well, I was always going off the deep end, so it was no radical departure. When I finished my tour in ’93, I was approaching the age of 60, and my old friend and teacher Roshi was approaching the age of 90, and I thought it would be the right moment to spend some more time with him…I wasn’t looking for a new religion or another list of dogma.”

It was clear that, before his departure, Cohen was deeply unhappy. Even with the success of, I’m Your Man and The Future, he’d found himself unable to feel anything beyond an all-consuming desire to get drunk and forget himself. “I’d been drinking three bottles of wine a night on the tour and one of the things I was looking for was a rest…I didn’t know what else to do,” Cohen later explained. His escape to Mt. Baldy acted as a balm for all of these destructive tendencies and – after a few failed attempts – led to the release of Ten New Songs.

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The album is unique in that it was largely a collaborative effort. Cohen worked with the composer and singer Sharon Robinson, who had an equal stake in everything from the arrangement to the actual vocal performances on the record. Every track was co-written, co-produced and co-performed with Robinson, making the LP a true union of talents. It was an approach that dragged Cohen out of the pit of self-criticism that had led him to throw away numerous half-written songs throughout the late 1990s. Cohen would bring some lyrics to Robinson, who would then build the music around them -imbuing the record with an organic, free-flowing atmosphere.

The release of Ten New Songs in 2001 reminded people of Cohen’s astonishing talent for capturing the minutia of human existence. On tracks like ‘Alexandra Leaving’ and ‘My Secret Life’, Cohen’s confessional lyrics are taken to new heights with the help of Robinson’s soulful arrangments, which blend warm, gospel-infused vocals and minimalistic electronic elements to create something, at once, sensual and intensely vulnerable.

For many at the time, Cohen’s time in the monastery was plain to see, and his words contained a new kind of wisdom alongside a greater sense of understanding. What’s more, Ten New Songs was the first album to showcase Cohen’s newly-gravelled voice, colouring the songs on the LP with a weathered authenticity that allows each lyric to take on the power of some Abrahamic psalm.

Today, it is still one of Cohen’s most sublime offerings, but there are times when Robinson’s arrangements steer the album towards what can only be described as R&B cheese. The electronic drum sounds and honey-sweet harmonies occasionally leave a bit of a sickly taste in the mouth, but it’s not overly distracting. I certainly can’t imagine many young people fell in love with this record, though. It is very obviously the product of a man in his ’60s – but I suppose where most of its beauty lies.

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