Friday, August 22, 2014

40 Year Itch : The Grocer Of Despair

On August 11, 1974, the year he turned 40, Leonard Cohen released his fourth album, New Skin for the Old Ceremony.

  The album came as a nice surprise because just a year earlier, after enlisting in the Israeli Army during the Yom Kippur War, Cohen had announced his retirement from the music scene. In 1973, Cohen told Melody Maker's Roy Hollingworth 

"Well, I wish everybody well on ‘the rock scene’, and may their music be great. May there be some good songwriters – and there will. But I don’t wanna be in it. I have songs in the air but I don’t know how to put them down. Anyway, I’m going."

  Cohen may have been disillusioned with more than the current "rock scene". He was deeply moved by meeting both Israeli and Arab soldiers and wrote both the single "Lover Lover Lover" and New Skin track "Field Commander Cohen" based on his experiences in Israel.

  "Lover Lover Lover" seems to be a statement of disillusionment with war, but the lyrics are open to many other interpretations:

I asked my father, I said, "Father change my name."
 The one I'm using now it's covered up with fear and filth and cowardice and shame.

The best known cuts on New Skin are "Who By Fire", based on the Unetaneh Tokef, an 11th-century liturgical poem recited on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur ( and sung with Janis Ian) and "Chelsea Hotel #2", a recollection of an affair with Janis Joplin that features the unforgettable lyric:

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
 you were talking so brave and so sweet,
 giving me head on the unmade bed,
 while the limousines wait in the street.

Though praised for the most part by critics, not everyone liked the arrangements by 
producer John Lissauer, who added banjo, mandolin, percussion and female backing vocals to what would have been a very spare album. I don't feel that way. I think New Skin for the Old Ceremony deserves to be regarded among Cohen's very best albums. He is the ultimate political observer, of what happens in the world, the bedroom and within the psyche.

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