A PERSON HAS a thousand ways of being, not just one but many selves, and Leonard Cohen embraced them all.
He sang the blues with Old World struggle, rasped epic tales and sometimes gospel, strumming Spanish chords on a broken-down guitar. But his final album, You Want It Darker, released a month after his 82nd birthday and only 17 days before he passed away, was like someone transcendently singing the prayer for ascension at his own funeral.
As if chanting a private liturgy, there was no more hunger for a voice. At last Cohen was the praise singer, aged and fatigued, a pilgrim with just one journey left to make. From the opening supplication—“I’m ready, my lord”—to the closing blessing—“It’s over now, the water and the wine”—the album is an uninterrupted prayer unto death.
“Traveling Light,” You Want It Darker’s ecstatic peak, bids au revoir to the self and the soul, the lover and beloved, the human and divine. Even in old age, Cohen is still no preacher, sage, or a saint. “I’m just a fool / A dreamer who / Forgot to dream / Of the me and you / I’m not alone / I’ve met a few / Traveling light / Like we used to do.”
Gone is the seductive blurring of sacred and profane and peeking through the curtain to glimpse the dealer’s latest game. The verses slide into an older and saltier way of singing, a sacred undertow, always there in songs of love and of despair, now amplified by the kind of wordless prayer people once sang from dusk until dawn.
HIGHWAY 62 runs from Niagara Falls, N.Y., to El Paso, Texas, and is the only U.S. highway to connect Canada and Mexico. In my home state of Kentucky, it passes the Wild Turkey distillery at Lawrenceburg and the state maximum security penitentiary at Eddyville.
Further north it takes you to Buffalo, N.Y., the hometown of roots music singer-songwriter Peter Case. That’s why he picked HWY 62 as the title for his latest album, a collection that can be taken as a sort of “state of the nation” recording. The Christian Science Monitor even said that the album “plays like a John Steinbeck novel set to music.” And they have a point. Most of the album’s 11 songs are peopled with prisoners and deportees, the evicted and the gentrified, and other 21st-century American outcasts.
Unlike many folkie populists, Case comes by his sympathy for the down-and-out honestly, if a little foolishly. Back on that lost planet that was the1970s, he dropped out of high school to become a musician and eventually landed on the streets of San Francisco, hungry, homeless, and frequently drunk. This part of Case’s life is covered unsparingly in the blog/memoir that he keeps at petercase.com, some of which has become a book, As Far as You Can Get Without a Passport.
After a near-miss with the poppish-punk band The Nerves, Case got his ticket to the music business punched with The Plimsouls, whose hit, “A Million Miles Away,” was one of the high-water marks of jangly 1980s New Wave rock. But then, just before he could become really rich and famous, Case’s contrarian streak reasserted itself. He left the band and started what now looks to be the rest of his life as a singer-songwriter who sometimes records with the likes of T Bone Burnett and Ry Cooder, but most often performs solo with his own acoustic guitar and harmonica.
Sufjan Stevens’ newest album, Carrie & Lowell (out now), is a heartbreaking meditation on personal grief. It’s also joyful, baffling, and delicately mundane.
In the spirit of a listening party, a few of us sat down to play through the album, sharing liner notes and meditations on the songs that grabbed each of us. Conclusion: it's really, really good. Stream Carrie & Lowell here, and listen along with us below.
Tripp: I love the first song of an album. I think of it as the introduction to a possible new friend. “Where The Streets Have No Name” on U2’s Joshua Tree or “Signs of Life” on Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason, that first track can be the thesis statement to a sonic essay.
So, when I get a new album — even in this day of digital albums or collections of singles — a first track can make or break an album for me. I sat down and listened attentively to “Death With Dignity.” It does not disappoint. With it Stevens introduces the subject of the album — his grief around troubled relationship with his mother and her death — as well as the sonic palate he will use throughout the album.
Simple guitar work, layered voicing, and a little synth, the album is musically sparse. The tempo reminds me of movies from the nineteen sixties or seventies where the action takes place over a long road trip.
Catherine Woodiwiss: I was thinking road trip, too. There’s real motion musically, which, given a claustrophobic theme and circular lyrics, is a thankful point of release. It’s a generous act, or maybe an avoidant one — he could have made us sit tight and watch, and he doesn’t quite do it.
Julie Polter: This isn’t a road movie, but the reference to that era of films just made me think of Cat Stevens’ soundtrack for Harold and Maude, especially “Trouble.” (This album is one-by-one bringing back to me other gentle songs of death and duress and all the songs I listen to when I want to cry).
It’s been twenty years since I rose and cleared my throat
It’s been ten years since stood outside the church
- Derek Webb, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You
The first verse of the first song on the Derek Webb’s new album is a recap of his music career, from Caedman’s Call in the 90s to his solo career launched with She Must and Shall Go Free (2003). Since that first solo album, Webb has pushed all sorts of buttons in the church and the “Christian” music world. From albums Stockholm Syndrome (2009) to Sola Mi (2012) and Ctrl (2012), he’s pushed his own musical boundaries and themes, incorporating elements of hip-hop and electronica and veering away from his gospel-country-folk roots.
I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You releases today across the country. While you can buy the album online, it is also at a number of Christian retailers for only $4.99 (an unbelievable deal, I must say). It is a return to those gospel-country-folk roots while still embracing all he’s learned in the past 10 years of a solo career. The bright guitar sounds return alongside mellow synthesizers, and for some songs, a crowd-sourced chorus.
But more important than the sounds are the lyrics. They’re not snarky or sarcastic like earlier records Mockingbird and The Ringing Bell, but still raw and personal.
Aaron Weiss reached his arm into his backpack, which was laid atop a swath of Sharpie graffiti tattooed on our table.
Ever since he walked on the stage earlier that night, I was imagining what was in that backpack, which bulged enough that the zipper didn’t close all the way. The bar we were in was dark and loud. It was 1:00 am. Most of the folks who had come to see mewithoutYou had already left for the night
“You’ll get a kick out of this,” he said.
He pulled out a hymn book much wider than it was tall.
“The Sacred Harp” was written across its brown cover in foil-stamped lettering. Weiss began to explain Sacred Harp singing to me, but he couldn’t go into too much detail; it was getting late, and there were a group of men waiting to donate veggie oil to the band — they use it to fuel their tour bus.
Sacred Harp music, I learned later, is sung a cappella with four sections — tenor, alto, treble and bass — forming the boarders of a square. But the singers don’t face out to an audience; they are turned toward the center of the square. The very center, where only one person stands, is the focal point. As our conversation began to drift to the subjects of performance and fame, it seemed fitting for Weiss to be carrying this book.