The Partisan

Leonard Cohen died two weeks ago, the latest light to disappear into the death vortex that David Bowie appears to have torn open in the fabric of the universe. You can view that as a string of particularly bad luck or as the beginning of the rapture, but you can’t write off the loss. Cohen was 82, a very respectable age to exit the mortal plane, but his voice was still vital and he had attained a position among his fans not unlike that of an evangelist. (A very carnal one, obviously.) People came to his concerts to hear something elevating and left with a feeling of having been anointed. He had become, for a certain subset of people, a somewhat reluctant spiritual leader. He may have argued that he was merely a wordsmith who happened to strum a guitar, but the power of his delivery spoke otherwise. As one of the greatest poets of our time, he very rarely felt the need to reach for other people’s words, but of the few covers he did record, he chose wisely. His performance of the European standard La Complainte du Partisan – an ode to the heroism of the French Resistance – is one of the most moving things he’s ever recorded. His live performance is even more powerful, though typically of Cohen, delivered gently and with subtlety. Cohen was a modest man, but he was a transporting performer, and he knew it. His final series of concerts, which must have been exhausting for a man of any age, were a blessing and gift.

One of Us Cannot be Wrong

What blonde ice queen straight out of a Nazi poster did Leonard Cohen get rejected by in the peeling Chelsea Hotel in the 1960’s, before he was rich and famous? I like to imagine it was Nico, but who knows, there were many ice queens around for an obscure Canadian poet to be rejected by in those days. (As always there are.) Whoever she was, she inspired the dejected poet to transcribe his pathetic crush into one of the most bleak and witty odes to unattainable desire ever written. It is the duty of poets to make an artful lament out of the simple and pathetic humiliation of being rejected by the cool girls. Leonard Cohen certainly told the age old story in a way it had never been told before. That’s why today he’s rich and famous and gets to sleep in nice hotels and probably hardly ever gets rejected.

Night Comes On

Leonard Cohen, 1977.
Photograph by Arnaud Maggs. Found at Library and Archives Canada. 

Since I am, for obvious reasons, in rather a morbid mood, let me remind you that Leonard Cohen is 81 years old and will probably die soon. Night comes on for everyone sooner or later, of course, but nobody likes to be reminded that mortality exists. Cohen’s unique schtick (if you can call it that) has always been to write in the voice of someone in his twilight years. Even as a relatively young songwriter in the 60’s, Cohen had the persona of a man with a lot of weary years under his belt. It suited him then and suits him even better now, which is rare. (Tom Waits is another who seems increasingly at ease in his persona as he gets older.) At the time, it set him apart from the rock’n’roll generation and their so-called youthquake culture, but now the rock’n’roll generation has outlived its own revolution and everyone has too many years behind them. And if there’s beauty to be found in decrepitude, it will be found by someone who was never one of the pretty things in the first place.

Nevermind

If you didn’t think Leonard Cohen was an important pop cultural figure, well he is now. He’s scored the much coveted opening credit slot on the second season of True Detective. That divisive show, if you haven’t seen or heard of it, presents a view of the world about as tar black as a creative vision can get before descending into pure horror territory. But not without a hard-won sliver of redemption. Leonard Cohen is not an artist with quite such a dark view, but he too has a vision of spiritual redemption as something fought for against horrific odds. With occasional specks of graveyard humor, he tells us that we find our light despite other people’s best efforts.

My Oh My

Leonard Cohen, 1977.
Photograph by Arnaud Maggs. Found at Library and Archives Canada. 

Leonard Cohen’s popular problems as of 2014 are mostly the same ones he was dwelling upon in 1967; the bittersweet business of pursuing love in an increasingly ugly world. It may sound trite when I put it that simply, but those are the things that have been Cohen’s concern, and he, being one of the poets of our time, can elevate such basic topics into the realm of high meaning. Getting older doesn’t seem to have changed his perspective much – he still sighs a weary sigh at the grotesqueries of the world around him and turns back inward to pursue desire. He’s always sang in the voice of a slightly battle scarred old rogue, a ladies’ man just past his prime, having lived to an age when being a ladies’ man is as sad a life as a fun one.

Master Song

Here’s a way more intelligent anthem for people who like BDSM! Though I guess that’s a pretty loose interpretation, actually. The magic of poetry is freedom to understand it in many different ways. Still, I’m fairly certain that this is about some kinky living. Leonard Cohen just makes it sound a lot more majestic than these things normally are.

2014 Albums of the Year

2014 was a year of extremes. It was, in terms of world events, rather extravagantly bad, marked by violence and unrest. If there was any piece of music that could sum it all up, it would be Merry Clayton wailing out a warning of rape and murder for The Rolling Stones. That was many years ago, but the storm is threatening darker than ever. For myself…it was a year of extremes, ranging from about as good as it gets, to close to as bad. Most of the defining moments of the year are things I’d rather not talk about publicly. Let’s just say that there was more drug use and anonymous bathroom sex than usual. Fortunately, there was also a lot of good music. So without further ado, the year’s best albums.

1. Lazaretto – Jack White

You knew this would happen. Of course Jack White would take the top spot. I’ve been a fan of pretty much everything Jack does, and he doesn’t disappoint. The whole thing feels tight and angry, fierce and confident. He’s really become a master at what he does, and Lazaretto is exactly everything you would want from a Jack White album. And, of course, it all comes with the usual visual delights; Jack never shorts us on imagery and artistry. The videos make me wish he’d go ahead and make a movie. The songs range from wordless to heartbreaking. Once again, Jack White presents the total package.

High Ball Stepper

Lazaretto

Would You Fight For My Love?

2. Popular Problems – Leonard Cohen

I had marked Cohen’s previous album as good, but this one is better than good. It’s his best since The Future, and it’s been a long time. Cohen is a sprightly 80 years old now, and somehow he sounds livelier than he has in years. It helps than the songs here are more catchy than somber, and the poet’s graveyard wit is still about him. The favored themes of love and desire and death and life are all lined up, along with darkly comic commentary on the bleakness of the world. “There’s torture, and there’s killing, and there’s all my bad reviews…”

Almost Like the Blues

Did I Ever Love You

Slow

3. This Is All Yours – Alt-J

Congratulation to Alt-J for avoiding the dreaded ‘sophomore slump’ that affects so many people’s second albums. They escaped the twin pitfalls of either repeating their debut note for note or abruptly reinventing themselves to better suit their newfound fame. They’ve remained satisfyingly weird and clever, while also growing into their sound. It’s great to see a band keeping psychedelic weirdness alive – and being successful while at it! (Also 10,000 bonus points for taking Miley Cyrus’s boneheaded affirmation of Confederate pride and making it into something awesome and actually empowering.)

Hunger Of the Pine

Left Hand Free

Every Other Freckle

4. Ghosts of Download – Blondie

Blondie has consistently produced good albums since their late 90’s comeback, so it’s no surprise they’ve made another good one. However, this one feels particularly timely. Right now, Blondie’s euphoric New Wave pop sound is really having a moment, with so many new bands striving to emulate their energy and sass. So it’s right on cue that the original punk princess returns. The new record is unabashedly high on hooks and dance-floor ready. I first heard many of these songs live in concert, just about a year ago, and the new material stood well beside the classics. It’s like the 80’s never ended.

A Rose By Any Name

Sugar On the Side

I Want to Drag You Around

5. Hotel Valentine – Cibo Matto

I can’t believe I’ve never listened to Cibo Matto before! They’ve been flying just under the radar for years, and this album for some reason received more than the usual amount of publicity. Let me tell you, it was a case of instantly falling in love. Why would’t I love a concept album about a haunted hotel? Or a song with “Don’t throw the fucking oyster shell at me” as a chorus?  If the ghost in the hotel appears to be that of Yoko Ono, it’s no coincidence; Ono is a longtime friend and mentor. It’s nice to discover a band of serious eccentricity.

Mfn

Deja Vu 

10th Floor Ghost Girl

6. El Pintor – Interpol

*Belated discovery of the year*

Another band I’d never listened to before that really struck a chord this year. Interpol are just back from a hiatus, so the new record came with loud and serious buzz. Well earned, it turns out. Having done my research with all of their previous albums, I can safely say, this is awesome by their own and any other standards. It’s Mancunian New Wave reborn, in a different decade, as New York City grunge.

All the Rage Back Home

My Desire

Everything Is Wrong

7. Ultraviolence – Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey is a divisive artist, to say the least. She gets flak for her looks (plastic surgery or nah?), her stage presence (wooden), her public statements (dumb), her fanbase (hipsters), her everything basically. She’s both blessed and cursed for having arrived on the scene fully formed in the age of internet-based instant gratification, and she’s sparked some deep debate about image and authenticity. Right away she struck me as an interesting songwriter and an original voice, and she’s grown since then. On her  new album she’s more mature, less in love with her own sex kitten image, more emotional and more perceptive. And she’s ready to parody herself and her hipstery ilk as well.

West Coast

Shades of Cool

Ultraviolence

8. Lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar – Robert Plant 

Robert Plant had some bad years as a solo artist, mostly in the 80’s. (Didn’t everyone?) In recent years he’s reinvented himself as something of a folksy man of the world, in the sense that the world is his inspiration. On his latest, he’s gathered musicians from all over the globe to form The Sensational Space Shifters, and they’ve all brought a piece of their home culture. It’s Plant’s liveliest and most diverse album, and it might actually be the most diverse album by anybody this year. And he still has the voice of a golden god. No wonder he’s ‘not bored enough’ to get the Led back on.

Rainbow

Arbaden (Maggie’s Babby)

House of Love

9. Give My Love to London – Marianne Faithfull

I love it when Marianne Faithfull rocks out a little. Nobody does gloom and doom better than she, but high spirits become her too. She’s definitely in a spirited mood on this outing. And she brought friends! Nick Cave, Roger Waters, Brian Eno, Mick Jones and Steve Earle all show up, and it seems that collaborating with the masters of morbid really brings out everyone’s cheery side. Some of the tracks sound like they’ve been piped in straight from the sixties, others like they’ve escaped from one of Cave’s own albums, all delivered with a hint of a wink. Faithfull sounds like she relishes digging her teeth into everything from Cave’s extravagantly morose Late Victorian Holocaust to classic Everly Brothers to standout late period Leonard Cohen.

Give My Love to London

Sparrows Will Sing

Going Home

10. St. Vincent – St. Vincent

St.Vincent has become quite the critics’ darling – and rightly so. She’s quirky enough to satisfy lovers of eccentricity, and yet (just barely) accessible enough to actually sell an album or two. She also has the David Byrne stamp of approval (not that she needs the validation); the two made an album and toured together. But Annie Clark is in no one’s shadow. She’s the thinking man’s new rock goddess.

Birth In Reverse

Digital Witness

Prince Johnny

11. Cheek to Cheek –  Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga 

All is forgiven, Lady Gaga! If Born This Way was all gigantic choruses, then Artpop was all drawn-out middle eights. It felt like Gaga, having concurred the world of pop, was treading water in search of a new direction. So she did the last thing anyone would ever expect. She made a jazz album. With Tony Bennett. Does it add something profound to the genre? Not really. Is it campy and bombastic at times? Yes, somewhat. But it’s been a long time since I’ve heard those old standards belted out with such joy and enthusiasm. Lady Gaga finally shows off her vocal chops, and she sounds swell. It’s plain to hear that Gaga and Bennett had an absolute ball working together. It’s a contagious feeling.

Anything Goes

I Can’t Give You Anything but Love

I Won’t Dance