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CD REVIEWS: Bard of liquid soul; Leonard Cohen - Dear Heather (Columbia) pounds 13.99.

Byline: Review by Andrew Cowen

If you're a fan, then the appearance of a new Leonard Cohen album is an event to savour seeing as it only comes round once every five years these days. Dear Heather is his first release since the consummate Ten New Songs and, boy, has it been worth the wait.

Cohen, now nudging 70, is often dismissed as some sort of bedsitter bard of miserabilism, but, in truth, he's capable of a much wider range of emotions. The lugubrious baritone and snail's pace of his backing probably compound this misunderstanding but it has to be said, Leonard Cohen's also capable of inspiring a good belly laugh.

Dear Heather is a superb album, from start to finish. It is wise, literate and utterly bewitching. The former smooth-talking seducer is now a senior citizen, facing up to the failing of the flesh, but with enough memories to keep him chuckling.

This is one of those classic artistic sunset albums, maybe the poet's last, and there's a strong sense of Cohen bidding farewell: to the stage, his muse and his intellectual faculties. Lyrically, it's as strong as ever, but, significantly, there aren't as many words. Rather than being a sign of laziness, it's all part of Cohen's process. Verses are sung and then repeated and the effect is hypnotic. Unlike the similarlyinclined Van Morrison, Cohen's device underlines his humbleness and grace before his failing faculties.

Musically, Dear Heather is not much of a departure from his recent outings: programmed AOR which is functional rather than groundbreaking. Rather like the backings which Robert Wyatt uses as a bed for his musings, there's nothing to startle here.

Cohen learned a long time ago that his voice gained much when juxtaposed with a female set of pipes and various angels serve as handmaidens here to brilliant effect.

So to the songs. Highlights are many and poignant. Because Of addresses the many women who have been part of his life. I love the way Cohen venerates women. He may have been a serial shagger, but he respects every last one of them.

The Letters addresses communication in the written form and speaks to anyone who has ever burnt a love letter in pique.

On That Day is Cohen's response to 9/11, a two minute hoedown replete with Jew's Harp redolent of Who By Fire. Anyone expecting solemn dignity will be surprised as Cohen sticks to a form of bland reportage to mark 'that day they wounded New York'.

Centrepiece of the album is the beautiful Villanelle For Our Time wherein Cohen's spoken word and Anjani Thomas's singing pile on a hypnotic thread. The words were written by Frank Scott yet they could have come straight from the pen of the singer himself. 'From bitter searching of the heart, We rise to play a greater part,' he repeats, each time the monotone becoming more musical, until the end where he's almost singing. It's an astonishing performance, his best for years.

Dear Heather, the title track, takes the repetition to another level. Just five lines make up the song, sung in a deadbeat robotic style. Each time around the verse is sung differently, different nuances, spelling out lines. It's like ee cummings singing with a cabaret band in God's waiting room. Terrific.

And so it goes. Twelve tracks, plus a recording of the concert favourite Tennessee Waltz tagged on at the end. Dear Heather stands head and shoulders above just about everything released this year and I love it. HHHHH

CAPTION(S):

Leonard Cohen may have mellowed, but the flame still burns brightly
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 13, 2004
Words:600
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