I’m certain that in at least one alternate universe, Leonard Cohen is Bob Dylan. The Canadian artist, like his Minnesotan counterpart, fuses folk, blues, and rock to create spare but evocative backdrops for cerebral poetry, which can, with equally vivid force, conjure the pains of an affair gone awry or the grim precognition of a dystopian future. Of course, comparing two singular artists is a foolish critic’s game, but I mean only to comment on the fact that while Cohen never became the Voice of a Generation, his oeuvre captures the spirit of the late 20th century with similar perceptiveness. In a parallel world where North Americans prefer jazz to country, never recovered the optimism shattered in Vietnam, and were, most of all, less suspicious of intellectualism, Cohen might have been our bard.
Instead, Cohen has been an enigmatic presence on the periphery of popular music, treasured by those who know him but unknown to far too many. Of course, Cohen is also “the guy who wrote ‘Hallelujah’,” though more famous renditions by Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright may even wrest away that star-making claim. As is, Cohen is 74 and, as Live in London amply demonstrates, cherished by many. He was 30 years younger when he released his last live album, and the Cohen who performs here sounds like a man at the end of his career. But that his not to say he sounds exhausted.
The long set—26 songs in all—benefits from exquisite production, every track bright and intimate. From his understated backing vocals and sparse piano arrangements, to the flamenco-inflected guitar lines that surface on some of his more recent tunes, Cohen’s compositions have always tended toward the minimal, but their details deserve to be heard clearly. When the band does get to play more robust material, as in Dino Holdo’s ebullient sax solo on “Bird on a Wire,” the performances are put subtlety forward in the mix, resulting in tracks that retain richness and dynamism in spite of their lengths.
Cohen’s voice has aged and deteriorated since Field Commander Cohen was recorded, and in some ways the new instrument is just as compelling as the old. Bleak numbers, like “The Future,” “The Gypsy’s Wife,” and “Democracy” benefit from the craggy inflection, their lines even taking on a prophetic quality in the mouth of an elder statesman. On other tracks, though, such as “Suzanne” and “Who by Fire,” Cohen’s vocals sound flat, the subtleties of the originals beyond his expressive power. Still, when Cohen uses his low-register droll on between-track quips on anti-depressants, heartbreak, and religion, the effect is indelible. He always elicits laughs and applause from his appreciative audience, and he seems to genuinely enjoy being in front of a crowd again. He also casts frequent plaudits on his backing band. That atmosphere of generosity and mutual affection contributes to the intimacy of the record; it’s easy to forget that Cohen was playing to a crowd of 20,000.
For those seeking a point of access into the artist’s imposing songbook, Columbia’s The Essential Leonard Cohen contains most of the same material, but will allow newcomers to hear classic cuts like “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire” as recorded when Cohen’s voice was stronger and more powerful than it is today. For those who want a compelling document of live Cohen, a number of alternatives exist, and they do not favor the artist’s recent output so heavily (one wonders why Songs from a Room-era favorites like “Story of Isaac” and “The Partisan” were not included here). But London is by far Cohen’s most generous live release, and if it tilts too heavily to the last two decades of his career, it compensates by including virtually all of the classics from the first three. And unlike a best-of compilation, it ties together all of the material, old and new, with consistent warmth and vocal aesthetic, which allows Cohen to eschew the type of chronological presentation that such collections favor. Instead, he is free to alternate among his many moods—the bleakly political, the tensely sexual, the achingly romantic—without sacrificing coherency.