Can You Hear My Song?

IF YOU ARE not overly familiar with the repertoire of a Leonard Cohen concert, it's hard to tell the new songs from the old. Songs from a different age sound neither anachronistic nor nostalgic, while the new echo as though they have been around forever. It's the same show night after night, with songs from the latest album, Old Ideas (released in 2012), woven into the familiar canon. Cohen tells audiences that his revivalist tour might end in two years, so that he can start smoking again by the time he turns 80.

It is a joke you know Cohen has cracked a hundred times, the kind that makes my brother call him the Jewish Dean Martin. The humor is one part of a precise choreography, whose arrangements shift from blues to waltzes to New Orleans jazz, Celtic, gospel, country, and disco, all set in the mode of Hebrew Minor and conspiring to create a vivid world that does not exist, except in paradox. Honey is the texture that comes to mind. Viscous and turbid, neither solid nor liquid. Sensual relief from the coarse, metallic world. And sweet. Sweet in the meaning of the verse from the Persian song "Navaee"—"High sweet melody, and sadness of love, dwelling in the bottom of the heart, where nobody sees"—the mixing of sorrow and transcendence into sublime paradox.

He is and has been many things to his devotees: poet, singer, writer, band leader, lover, satirist, artist, and novelist. But one thing Leonard Cohen is not is a preacher.

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