The other night I decided to get out some of my favorite records, one of them being American Music Club's Mercury — which is probably my favorite album of the 90s — to refresh the palette for all the new music I'm listening to. As I listened to the 1993 black-heart gem of Mark Eitzel's relational entropy, wondering if any single record ever had that many great lyrics, I suddenly started hearing the melody to Leonard Cohen's "In My Secret Life" massaging my disintegrating memory.
So I got out the album that opens with that track, Ten New Songs, which I would never have thought to call my favorite album of THIS decade. When it came out a few years ago, I thought the lyric sheet was excellent, but had pretty much given up on the light Casio-driven folk-funk Our Moody Doomed Father of Love Song persisted in recording. But listening to Ten New Songs immediately against Eitzel's genius song cycle, a record that had gotten me through at least one blue-black year, and I realized I am now old enough, have matured enough to accept where Cohen has been going (musically). Ten New Songs has thus been played the rest of the week, and though only half of it makes me behave like my father with a bourbon and a Sinatra LP circa 1972, I am willing to concede the Canadian singer-songwriter-poet-ladies' man-Buddhist monk-etc. is as well as has been always ahead of the game.
That becomes very obvious on viewing "Leonard Cohen: Under Review 1978-2006," which (I kid you not) came in the mail the next day. A follow up to MVD's study of Cohen's more hipster-beloved earlier records (want to really piss me off? Repeat the fool's "conventional wisdom" that early Waits and latter Cohen are mutually deficient due to the bleatings of your non-critical thinking peers), I have to say this is one of the very best of the documentaries the specialty DVD/audio company has released — many of the usual suspects from the series are here, including Robert Christgau and some Uncut editor/writers, biographers and bewitched collaborators of Cohen's — and brings up in detail all those deliciously mordant and boom-pah-pah music movies L. has been putting out since the fascinating monstrosity of his team-up with Phil Spector at the end of the 70s.
A good deal of its charm for me personally are the confused responses to what I would consider the Secret History of Cohen, the album where his past and future vortexed; a record called Various Positions that wasn't even released in the States. When it came out in 1984 my girlfriend and I absorbed every day through our relationship together and apart. (Yes, the girlfriend responsbile for my missing front tooth.) I was living in a punk group house at the time, and at first my housemates wanted to kill me for playing the rickety-keyboard driven, very religious sounding LP on the communal stereo system. I mean, to go from Pere Ubu's Dub Housing to the Only Ones' Another View to Bryan Ferry's solo albums — hey, wait, to our fellow for example Nick Cave fans* it started to make sense. It definitely got played even when I wasn't there.
But it was a weird record — and on the MVD doc the critics chat about why: It might be the first lo-fi keyboard masterpiece. Cohen was bored plunking badly on an acoustic guitar and insisted on plunking out automatic rhythms on a handheld pre-set keyboard anyone could buy instead.
OK, but why is this the record I would most write a 33 1/3 book about — it can't just be Cohen's great lyrics with junk-culture one-man jams, could it?
No, it is also the tracklisting, still unknown by many Cohen fans who are told this is a transitional record, a flawed groping between the expansive Recent Songs (1979) and the title-track and "Waiting For The Miracle"-blessed The Future (1992)**: "Hallelujah" (and this is still my favorite version, sorry Buckley and Cale and et al fans) with his darkest song about authority "The Captain" and his darkest song about God "The Law" and his most beautiful gospel number "If It Be Your Will."
Yes, this would be the album I would want to interview everyone involved about, and plink-plonks aside, the songs hold up as Cohen's best. I have a theory it has a little to do with what the "Under Review" DVD brings up about Cohen's collaboration with Canadian pervert-cabaret arranger Lewis Furey for the musical "Night Music," and Cohen's own self-made feature film "I Am A Hotel," but I might as well thank MVD and these writers and save that for my OWN book.
*-Are you a fan of "Boatman's Call"? You might want to pay attention.
** – Yes, I skipped "I'm Your Man," which really isn't an album, more like the Mount Rushmore of music (just ask Frank Black, among many other fans). That story is the regular Cohen enthusiast's reason for picking up "Leonard Cohen: Under Review 1978-2006," which is totally worth it just for THAT story.