Leonard Cohen – New Skin For The Old Ceremony

I realized that I am doing something with these Leonard Cohen write-ups that I didn’t intend to do, but works anyway: I’ve been writing them in the general order I would probably recommend people actually listen to them. Not that every album isn’t good, really there’s only one that I think isn’t (which we’ll be getting to soon). This album is actually one of the very best, but may be lost on “new” fans, as it’s one of Cohen’s more “poetic” albums, both in text and performance:

I KNEW that's what the angels have been up to up thereThere is this sort of esoteric quality about poetry that has always eluded me, perhaps I’m a simple-minded creature who only understands when a bass-line is funky or an indie band is worthless, but that esoteric quality is something that our favorite Canadian man of words, Leonard Cohen, brings to his 4th album.

Recorded right on the heels of Songs Of Love And Hate… by which I mean a full 3 years later, New Skin For The Old Ceremony represents the first of a-many changes in the Cohen song structure. This time around, we have traded out the army of cellos and black mood music for some rather oblique choices in instrumentation and lyrics. This change is pretty extreme and is represented well in the very first song, “Is This What You Wanted?”

You were the promise at dawn
I was the morning after
You were Jesus Christ my lord
I was the money lender
You were the sensitive woman
I was the very reverend Freud
You were the manual orgasm
I was the dirty little boy

And is this what you wanted
To live in a house that is haunted
By the ghost of you and me?

And that’s not even that bad compared to the rest of that song, either! Yeah it seems that Cohen has chosen some more decadent, perhaps even indiscreet, wording to make his very vague points about love and hate known. The actual instrumentation in that song is quite different too, introducing a horn section, a rhythm section, and an actual element of funk in the chorus. Mind you, this is all still merely accompanying Cohen’s classical guitar picking, and perhaps even as a joke, the Jew’s Harp makes an appearance in the second verse.

Some lonely pieces of brass stick around to wail softly about 3 miles away from the next song, which is mostly just Cohen and his guitar. Still, it’s one of the most infamous songs in the man’s catalogue, I’m talking of course about “Chelsea Hotel #2” (there isn’t really a part 1, don’t look for it). It’s about Leonard and a kindred spirit and their romantic fling in a famous Bohemian motel. Like any story that you have heard or care to make up about Leonard Cohen boning a lady in the 70’s (or even nowadays in his 70’s, yeesh), this one is entirely true. It’s also fairly graphic:

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
You were talking so brave and so sweet
Giving me head on the unmade bed
While the limousines wait in the street
Those were the reasons and that was New York
We were running for the money and the flesh
And that was called love for the workers in song
Probably still is for those of them left

The secret “true story” behind this song is that the woman in question is famed singer Janis Joplin, who had died tragically 4 years prior to this album in a freak accident involving heroin and more heroin. The song is sweet in that it’s Cohen’s admiration for the lady and her spirit, but it’s also not a love song in the least, especially given the last line:

I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best
I can’t keep track of each fallen robin
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
That’s all, I don’t even think of you that often

Such is the way with a ladies’ man like Cohen. Anyway, Janis Joplin, brilliant performer that she was, was only mildly attractive and I think the comedian Dylan Moran put it best, that she would often sing on stage wearing a dress woven from her own vomit. You don’t want to dwell on such a lady for too long after fate had already claimed her, for that reason the song is pretty much perfect. Cohen regretted his indiscretion with revealing just who the song was about, and to be honest, the mystery would have been better unsolved.

The album continues on its path of contrasting images of erotic love and even more erotic war, and various other instruments make staggering appearances such as the rattly thing on “Lover Lover Lover” (the chorus of which contains way more repetitions of the word “Lover” than is present on the title) and jazz banjo on a very “American standard” sounding song called “Why Don’t You Try”.

Some of the real highlights of the album are in the latter part, starting with “A Singer Must Die”, which is nearly a humorous song, but then again, a grand amount of Leonard’s songs are humorous on some level. This is another of those pieces that, lyrically, I tend to throw the word “perfect” in the direction of:

Now the courtroom is quiet, but who will confess
Is it true you betrayed us? (The answer is yes)
Then read me the list of the crimes that are mine
I will ask for the mercy that you love to decline
And all the ladies go moist, and the judge has no choice
A singer must die for the lie in his voice

And I thank you, I thank you for doing your duty
You keepers of truth, you guardians of beauty
Your vision is right, my vision is wrong
I’m sorry for smudging the air with my song

This song later makes reference to “kneeing balls” which is kind of great. The best part is that this song is all being sung against one of the loveliest string arrangements I’ve ever heard against a folk song outside of Nick Drake. Great stuff.

“I Tried To Leave You” is a bluesy melancholy song about the mundane life and this kind of simultaneous irritation and acceptance of such. Well, that’s my interpretation, again it’s a vague thing. This song usually opens up Cohen’s “final” (read: fourth or fifth) encore, and the opening line, which is the song’s title, brings a lot of laughter from the encore-demanding crowd.

Speaking of concerts, possibly the most popular “live” song to come out of this album is “Who By Fire”, a song that apparently drops enough Jewish references to be about religion, but I am unfortunately too ignorant to derive that out of the lyrics myself. This song is a very “Jewish” sounding song however, in its melody and rhythm, and I’m quite fond of it. This song is far too short on the album at only 2 1/2 minutes, but live versions contain extensive instrumental portions that drive the length to “pretty epic”, which is the kind of length you need to accommodate an oud solo (do you even know what those are? Me neither!)

Finally, we get Cohen’s own re-working of “Green Sleeves” called “Leaving Green Sleeves”, the classic melody of which is only really played on the violin in the background as Cohen yells out the words. This song really has to be heard to be believed, one may even think Cohen’s totally lost it, as his screaming gets pretty intense towards the end. I guess this song was added to revive people put into a coma by the preceding tracks. Leonard Cohen is nothing if not gracious to his fans like that.

So, despite my not going into all 11 songs of this album, due to some very erotic time restrictions, this album is one of my personal favorites, and definitely ranks highest among Cohen’s “obscure” albums. It’s kind of hidden between the “trilogy” of his first albums and the synth-laden later albums, but it’s not alone, Recent Songs and Death Of A Ladies’ Man are hiding with it, and we shall hopefully be getting to those soon! Until then!

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