Leonard Cohen has been called brilliant, unique and charming but never, to my knowledge, prolific. Between 1967, when his debut album appeared, and 2011—nearly half a century later—he issued a grand total of 11 studio LPs. During one nine-year stretch, he offered no new material at all.
But the pace has picked up in recent years. He released excellent studio albums in 2012 and 2014 and has supplemented three earlier concert discs with four more, including this new package, which collects 2012 and 2013 concert and soundcheck performances from around the world. (I have an advance copy of the CD, which is due out May 12.)
Do we really need a seventh live set from a guy who has delivered fewer than twice that number of studio albums? I guess that depends on how much his music means to you. One thing’s for sure, though — the quality is top-notch throughout. Cohen sounds thoroughly engaged here and sings masterfully, and his band—particularly Javier Mas (guitars, laud, archilaud, banduria) and violinist Alex Bublitchi—complement him beautifully. Listening to these tracks, moreover, you’ll see why Cohen invariably uses the word “sublime” when introducing backup singers Hattie and Charley Webb.
Fans will likely struggle to pick a favorite from this fine crop of well-chosen performances. Cohen has not previously issued live versions of three of them (“I Can’t Forget,” “Night Comes On” and “Light as the Breeze”) and has never previously even recorded another four (the new “Got a Little Secret” and “Never Gave Nobody Trouble” and covers of a George Jones tune and a Quebeçois love song). The remaining numbers include “Field Commander Cohen” and “Joan of Arc,” which appear on earlier studio and live albums but receive definitive treatment on Can’t Forget; and “Stages,” which turns out to be a lighthearted monologue on aging followed by a snippet from Cohen’s oft-recorded “Tower of Song.”
The George Jones cover is no surprise. Cohen is a lifelong fan of country music and has previously cited Jones as a favorite; in fact, this album’s title may be a nod to Jones’s classic song about divorce, “Grand Tour.” What is a bit surprising is how well the lyric of the country singer’s “Choices” fits Cohen; the song sounds like something he could have written. Other highlights include a mesmerizing reading of “I Can’t Forget”; an emotional, violin-spiced “Joan of Arc,” with breathtakingly beautiful vocal solos from one of the Webb sisters; and the two new originals, both of which contain evidence of Cohen’s trademark wry humor.
In the preface to my book Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, I wrote, “How many of the 701 people inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by 2013 hit their peak in their mid- and late seventies? Maybe just one ” Well, now it’s 2015, and I may have to amend that comment: Cohen today is an octogenarian. And it’s not at all clear that he has yet peaked.