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.

Album of the Week: 1969: The Velvet Underground Live

I’m not always a fan of live albums, depending on the talent or passion of the artists a lot can be lost from studio to stage. Even with a band as great as the Velvet Underground, a few of their best songs just don’t translate outside of the studio, like Lady Godiva’s Operation. Overall though, The Velvet Underground and later Lou Reed in his solo work have great presence and passion, and I generally prefer most of their live work to their albums. Heroin especially thrives on this album, truly besting the version that can be found on The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967).

Also worth noting is that, starting September 25th, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts will be opening their exihibition on Andy Warhol entitled “Music and dance in Andy Warhol’s work“. I’m a huge fan of his work, and will probably see this within it’s first week, in spite of the potential crowds. His famous portraits will be included, as well as album art, illustrations, etc. Some of his films will also be featured, including his screen tests of the Velvet Underground.  It’s easy to forget Warhol’s play in the complete freedom that he allowed the young New York artists who became the Velvet Underground, as well as his introduction of Nico to the band. I wouldn’t rule out Chelsea Girls being an album of the week in the future.

Album (s) of the Week

It’s almost an understatement to call this the album(s) of the week, as it’s probably my favourite album all around. I never get tired of Baez’s voice, and the simplicity of her using just a single guitar. There is a song for every mood, from folk to contemporary. Decades after they were released, theys still pack an emotional and political punch. It’s difficult not to be inspired by her renditions  of protests songs like “What Have They Done to the Rain”, or moved to tears by beautiful traditional ballads like “Matty Groves” (my favourite track, unfortunately unavailable on youtube).

In place of Matty Groves, here is my second favourite off the double album, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You“. Led Zeppelin’s version may be more famous, but it can’t hold a candle to Baez’s.

More Music: Metric

I’ve been listening to a lot of Metric this past week, one of my favourite current acts, I saw them live last year at Concordia University and it was the most fun I had in a long time. My favourite album of theirs is Live it Out, but they all have their gems.  Their music is positively infectious, they also know how to get a crowd going.  I still need to get around to checking out Emily Haines’ solo work.


Album of the Day

This is more than me just getting lazy, I’m having computer problems and have very limited internet time. Hopefully this will mean a bit more time to watch movies for me, I’m already listening to more music. This kind of entry is short and sweet… so no stress if it doesn’t go through, and it only takes a few minutes a day. I hope you guys don’t mind!

A good friend of mine introduced me to Tegan and Sara over a year ago, but I’ve only recently went back to listen to their music again. It’s nifty-fun, and it doesn’t hurt that they’re Canadian and kinda cute.

Click on the album to go to their MySpace