Album of the Week: New Skin for Old Ceremony, Leonard Cohen

I’ve always liked Leonard Cohen. Being a fellow Montrealer, for a long time I liked him just “because”. Then when I started expanding my music taste in my teens, I’d be listening to Jeff Buckley and notice that the song had been written by none other than Mr. Cohen. Then in my last year of high school, I remember a teacher asking us to write a short essay on the following question: “Is Margaret Atwood Canada’s greatest writer”. No offence to Atwood, but I’ve never liked her prose, especially not in poetry (though I do enjoy Alias Grace)… so I argued that she wasn’t, even though I personally had a difficult time finding an alternative. I suggested both Roch Carrier and Mordecai Richler, because I felt that their work represented a far more vast representation of the “Canadian experience”. Looking back, I think selfishly, I clung to them as compatriots who shared my experience. Though Carrier was not born in Montreal, his writing on the lives of the Quebecois always felt more at home than anything that Atwood had written. There was also a sort of sentimental attachment to his children’s story, The Hockey Sweater, that was a staple for most Canadian childhoods, mine included. I’m also sure, Richler’s own children’s books played a big part in my appreciation for his work. I never suggested Cohen, though, I think if I were to go back, he would be my choice, no questions asked.

Earlier this year, I started listening to his music. I got my hands on his entire discography, and almost listened to it album cover to album cover. I was simply blown away, beyond a simple reflection of the so-called “Canadian experience”, which is still elusive as Canadians don’t seem to agree on who they are, it was a profound exploration of human relationships. With his songs he transcends any kind of nationalistic pride, or attainability. They simply exist, an often mournful cry for companionship and understanding, with brief, but full portraits of happiness and love. Though there are a few songs I’m not particularly fond of, every single album has at least a handful of songs that are able to touch or excite me in some way.

Though, it changes on almost a day to day basis, today I’ve settled upon “New Skin for the Old Ceremony”, as my favourite of his albums. There are personal reasons involved, as several of these songs remind me of people I care about, but also have served as inspiration for some of my recent work that I’m proud of (a rare feat indeed). Two songs in particular that never fail to move me are “Take this Longing” and “I Tried to Leave You“. Both are bittersweet, the first about an encounter between two lovers, possibly for the last time. While the other, about someone who can’t seem to leave, the reasoning is almost painfully obvious, but I don’t think love is ever obvious, which makes it so tragic. His songs all seem to have a natural appreciation and I’d even say, understanding, of women. Though most of his work seems to be about the struggle of human interaction, he has a unique sense of the individual. Even when a character or person seems elusive, there is always a marvel or magic to them, that reminds me of life in a wonderful way. I know my mother doesn’t really like Cohen because she finds his work depressing and, she is even known to say “Listening to him is enough to drive anyone to suicide”. Though I can’t deny the aching heartbreak and confusion that seems to pervade his work, something about it is calming and hopeful. I think in a lot of his work, even what we understand as “simple” emotions like happiness or sadness is complicated by unease and insecurity, and I relate to that in a way that makes me feel a lot better about the world around me.

This entry, more than anything else, was spurred by my reading of his novel “Beautiful Losers”. I’m almost finished, and it’s been a very long time, if not a lifetime since I’ve been so excited and moved by a novel. Experimental and raw, it is still very reflective and calculated. For a moment it reminds me of the work of the beat poets, especially Kerouac’s On the Road, but subdued and more introspective. It’s an exploration of relationships and interaction, history and the self. It typifies Canadian literature, without being obvious or clear. It’s a search for identity, and warmth. The protagonist working to survive each day, his best friend F living a life too big for any man is crushed by his own spirit and the unnamed narrator’s wife, who is doomed from the onset, unable to connect with a world that has already cut her short. Wildly explorative, sensual and experimental, the book is one of those rare pieces of art that seems to hit a stride of consciousness that replicates the logic of thoughts and dreams. It’s just free. Assuming I like it as much once I finish it (just a few more pages to go!), it might very well be my favourite novel.

That’s all I have to say about Leonard Cohen for now, I also just want to mention another Canadian song writing great I’ve been listening to a lot lately, Gordon Lightfoot. Take a listen.

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