Cohen’s death leaves a huge void

This week I review three releases, including Sony’s releases on the late Leonard Cohen’s new album, a Dylan release and David Bowie retrospective.

¯ Leonard Cohen — “You Want it Darker”

The great Leonard Cohen died earlier this week, and the world surely is the worse for it.

Cohen, 82, has long been established as one of the greatest modern songwriters, penning the ironic songs “Hallelujah,” “Suzanne,” “Bird on a Wire,” “Everybody Knows” and dozens of other classics.

Beginning as a renowned Canadian poet, Cohen began his musical career at the age of 35 after being “discovered” by Columbia A&R legend John Hammond. Over the course of 13 albums, all released by Columbia, Cohen treated us to complex songs full of poetic and surreal imagery that often were extremely cryptic, and his songs could be interpreted many ways, depending on the individual.

During the last 10 years, he became extremely active again, and he recorded several albums, many of them live. Warm, inviting and charming, the live albums featured songs from his vast catalog sung with his trademark smoky and compelling baritone.

Cohen’s time was nearly up recording “You Want it Darker,” and he knew it.

The last several studio albums have all been worthy efforts, and Cohen kept his sense of humor, charm and dignity intact. Cohen knew he was dying, and he went into the great unknown ready and willing, if “You Want it Darker” is to be believed.

Every song — with the most direct lyrics Cohen has ever written — deals with death. Some are humorous, while others contain bits of Cohen’s quirky religious imagery, freely borrowing from faiths throughout the world with impunity. Cohen’s impending afterlife was rich indeed.

Anyone familiar with Cohen’s work understands his entire musical career was an exploration of mysticism, sex, life, spirituality and the complex matters of the soul, heart and mind. “You Want it Darker” is a fitting tribute to one of the most original songwriters of the past 100 years, and one of his best late-period efforts. Leonard, you will be missed.

• Bob Dylan — “The 1966 Live Recordings”

This gigantic, comprehensive box set covers Bob Dylan’s first concerts after converting from the earnest folksinger of his earlier years to the rocker with loud electric guitars and a potent live band that would later be known as the Band.

Over the course of 36 discs we are treated to Dylan in his prime, including several overseas concerts where his new material was not well-received by an often confrontational audience, not ready for the plugged in Dylan.

At many of the concerts you can hear Dylan retorting back, sometimes tauntingly, sometimes with inside humor. What Dylan didn’t do was let the reactions affect him in a negative way. In fact, the more unruly the audience over his loud, electric band, the harder Dylan and company rocked.

In hindsight it’s really difficult to understand what all the hoopla was about.

Dylan already had released the very electric “Highway 61 Revisited,” and songs from “Blonde on Blonde,” perhaps Dylan’s greatest album, were performed on the tour before even being released — many of them acoustically without the Band.

But the fact Dylan was now a rocker shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. Dylan was puzzled and surprised by the crowd’s reaction, but he soon realized he didn’t really care and came up with clever ways to silence and deflect crowd criticism, sometimes subtly and other times with brutality.

Dylan sounds great, and the Band sounds even better on versions of “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and killer versions of “Leopard-Skin Pill-box Hat,” a sardonic, sarcastic and mocking reading on the youthful fashion trends of the 1960s and one of his most rocking tunes of that era.

Most of the recordings are from the soundboard, which means the vocals are very upfront. There are a few shows that are audience recordings, and these are very raw. We’re talking bootleg quality on many discs, with songs featured during the acoustic portions of the show sounding absolutely superb.

Thirty-six dics is an awful lot of Dylan, so this gem is aimed squarely at Dylan freaks and collectors like myself. This was Dylan’s most fertile periods, and it’s a real treat for the fans to hear all the shows on this crazy tour, infamously documented by filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker in “Don’t Look Back,” which is available on Amazon.com.

This is cool stuff for a guy like me, and it’s retailing for $127 on Amazon.

• David Bowie — “Legacy”

This two-CD set released by Sony/Legacy this week profiling the best of the late David Bowie’s ground-breaking work is pretty much what you would expect it to be — lots of well-known stuff from throughout his ever-changing and diverse career.

From his first well-known, underground hit “Space Oddity” to two singles — “Lazarus” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” — from his outstanding and final album “Blackstar,” there’s not much to not like about this double CD. I guess you would have to call it a greatest hits package, but Bowie’s hits were some of the most unique ever in the pop and rock world. If you never heard of Bowie or wanted to become familiar with his work, this would be a great place to begin.

(Mark Miller is co-editor of Weekender.)

 

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