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Leonard Cohen still has the magic touch

Leonard Cohen
Ten New Songs

For all his brilliance as a songwriter, Leonard Cohen remains a pop outsider. He recently confirmed this status by retreating to a Buddhist monastery – which he has called both “a hospital for broken hearts” and “a Marine boot camp” – high in the Rockies.

Now, down from the mountain he comes with Ten New Songs, his 15th album, which proves that isolation and kitchen duty have not dulled his genius.

Though his already limited vocal range has further narrowed, Cohen, 67, here offers some of his most haunting melodies. All were written with producer Sharon Robinson, who co-wrote such previous Cohen gems as “Everybody Knows” and “Waiting for the Miracle,” not to mention Patti LaBelle’s “New Attitude.”

On the 1988 classic I’m Your Man, Jennifer Warnes sang lush harmonies to drive home the melodies when Cohen’s grave chanting couldn’t do them justice. Robinson (who’s pictured with him on the album cover) goes even further, acting as co-lead vocalist to the Cohen drone, and even rendering some portions entirely without him.

He’s always had women singing backup a bit too prettily, but here, it sometimes seems that his muse has become his dominatrix.

But despite her hands-on production, Robinson doesn’t overshadow the headliner. Her grooves are essentially synthetic, but still somber and minimal in the Cohen tradition. Besides, he made the sound of the beat-box his own with I’m Your Man.

So each song sounds unmistakably his, both in melody and in the wry, deep and witty lyrics about love, sex, religion and death. No new attitude for him.

He faces up to aging with both despair (“Here is your sickness/Your bed and your pan”) and mystical reckoning (“I know that I’m forgiven/But I don’t know how I know”). He abandons the political slant of 1992’s The Future, except for a prayerful couplet: “May the lights in The Land of Plenty/Shine on the truth some day.”

Cohen retains his knack for sounding holy and humble at once. He could pose as a mountaintop prophet, but instead casts himself as a helpless consumer with “In My Secret Life”: “I buy what I’m told/From the latest hit/To the wisdom of old.” He may live at a higher altitude now, but it hasn’t gone to his head.