Saturday, March 10, 2018

Various Positions (1984)

It occurred to me that Leonard Cohen's seventh album came out within a couple of months of VU, the Velvet Underground's surprise release of its remarkable collection of previously unreleased material. I thought I might be able to make something of that, 1960s New York City icons at the crossroads or some such, but I don't remember anyone thinking of both albums together at the time, and really they're very different from one another. VU is pure blast from the past. That's why it's so great. Whereas the Cohen—coming after a five-year hiatus, his longest to that point—is more tentative about entering the future, or at least keeping up with the present. So we get synthesizer keyboards, for example, in the opener, "Dance Me to the End of Love." For all that, it's still Cohen's same plodding tempo and doleful air, occasionally pierced by unexpected words. It's comfortable like an old armchair but I'm not necessarily trying to convert anyone to his cause. As always, he is something of a prickly pear—the poet bona fides often feel more like a kind of con, or joke, though his words can ring, as I say (the aforementioned "dance me to the end of love"). But I didn't go for Various Positions much in its time, or Leonard Cohen either for quite some time. So I was actually a little surprised coming back to find it's the home of "Hallelujah." That song has long struck me as a kind of miracle, not to push too hard on the religious note. I came to it, probably like a lot of people, by way of Jeff Buckley's remarkable cover many years after this album. I know there's a label for it—"secular hymn"—but I say it belongs with real hymns, e.g., "In the Garden" or, especially, "Amazing Grace," which is close to being my single favorite song of all time full stop. Some may consider it trite, maybe as a matter of overexposure, although I can't fathom that myself because I have never been tired of or unmoved by the song and I love to sing it too. It feels right. "Hallelujah" is in that ballpark. Unspeakably beautiful—Cohen's version, Buckley's version, Kate McKinnon's version of Hillary Clinton's version, my version, croaking along. Transcendent. The rest of the album is thus unfortunately left in an embarrassing position, sounding aimless and too casual by comparison. Some songs, like "The Captain," "Hunter's Lullaby," and "Heart With No Companion," are weaker when you notice the words, even wince-worthy. Some, like "If It Be Your Will" and "Hallelujah," make me straight off want to have a conversation with whoever coined the term "secular hymn." (Well, no, never mind, I actually hate those conversations.) I understand Cohen is attempting to have it both ways through the use of ironic distance, but no. No. You can't have it both ways. All you need is "Hallelujah."

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