Album Reviews - Leonard Cohen - Thanks for the Dance, Plus Bruce Springsteen

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Leonard Cohen’s excellent You Want It Darker—which appeared in October 2016, less than a month before his death—features vocals that he recorded from a hospital chair and lyrics about his own mortality. “I’m ready, my Lord,” he declares. “I’m out of the game.” As I wrote at the time, the backup by a synagogue choir often sounds like music you’d hear at a funeral. The album certainly seemed like the final chapter of Cohen’s inimitable career.

As it turns out, though, he had one more surprise up his sleeve: in the months and weeks before his death, he recorded vocals for more new songs than made it onto You Want It Darker; and thanks largely to the efforts of his son Adam, who crafted musical settings for those vocals, we now have Thanks for the Dance—a new Leonard Cohen album three full years after his death. Given how unexpected this was and how much time has passed, it feels as if he’s speaking to us from beyond the grave. I guess we should have taken him seriously when he sang, back in 1988, that “you’ll be hearing from me…long after I’m gone / I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the tower of song.”

You can be forgiven if you’re not expecting much of value to be issuing from that tower at this point; lots of posthumous releases appear to have been slapped together from bits and pieces that never would have seen the light of day were the artist still around. Not this time, though. Granted, these songs came from the same sessions that produced You Want It Darker and were therefore not first picks; granted, too, some of the lyrics and sonic landscapes sound as if they might have profited from more polishing, if Cohen had had the time. And Darker is the stronger album overall. (At least a bit longer, too: this one runs only 28 minutes.) All that said, there’s plenty here to justify this CD’s existence.

Cohen’s voice is as commanding as ever, and his lyrics are loaded with memorable, quotable lines about life, mortality, sex, and relationships—his usual turf. Assisted by a handful of musicians—including Beck as well as Spanish guitarist Javier Mas and singer Jennifer Warnes, both longtime Cohen cohorts—Adam has melded those lines and vocals with an affecting, albeit appropriately sparse musical environment. It enhances the songs’ emotional depth while keeping the vocals front and center. 

Reflections on the life Cohen has lived and ruminations on his imminent demise are all over this album. You can hear his trademark self-deprecation, wry humor, hopefulness, and melancholy all wrapped up in the first verse of ”Happens to the Heart,” the album opener: “I was always working steady, but I never called it art / I got my shit together, meeting Christ and reading Marx / It failed my little fire, but it’s bright the dying spark.” And in the moving “The Hills,” he confides, “I can make the hills, the system is shot / I’m living on pills, for which I thank God / I sailed like a swan, I sank like a rock /But time is long gone, past my laughingstock.”

Along with You Want It Darker, Thanks for the Dance will stand as an elegant coda to a unique and unforgettable career.

BRIEFLY NOTED 

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Bruce Springsteen, The 1990s Broadcast CollectionWill every concert ever given by Bruce Springsteen ultimately be released on CD? It’s starting to look that way. At any rate, this latest box collects three shows that have previously been issued individually. It includes a pair of two-disc sets that find Springsteen performing with the outfit he assembled during his hiatus from the E Street Band: An Italian Charade, a 1993 show that I reviewed when it was released as The Other Band Tour; and Dress Rehearsal Broadcast, a June 1992 concert that Springsteen gave for an invited audience 10 days before kicking off a world tour. This latter show includes strong performances of some of his best rockers from the period, such as “Man’s Job” and a nearly 13-minute “Roll of the Dice,” and is accompanied by a contemporaneous 18-minute interview. 

Perhaps most interesting is the anthology’s fifth disc, 1995 Radio Hour: The Tom Joad Sessions, which preserves a Philadelphia gig from a solo acoustic tour. It includes four songs from The Ghost of Tom Joad, plus “This Hard Land” and “Streets of Philadelphia,” and dramatically reworked versions of earlier numbers like “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “Born in the USA.” Also here is a 34-minute interview in which Springsteen discusses the Tom Joad album, among other subjects.

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches…

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