Depressed artiste that he is, proto-goth king Leonard Cohen labors over both his lyrically elaborate songs (which sometimes take years) and his life (it can also take him years to resurface), disappearing to study religion and find himself in the ’90s, but remaining essentially lost to everyone else. He’s been around almost three-quarters of a century, with more than 30 years in the music biz, but only 11 studio albums to his credit—not to mention that it’s been a decade and a half since he’s played the States.
Maybe that’s why fans were relieved that for his sold-out Beacon show, he went through more than two dozen songs in two sets and three encores. Decked out in an appropriately black suit, he was almost sprightly, kneeling and buckling and shuffling and swaying to his mid- and slow-tempo songs, his gaze trained dramatically skyward and his eyes closed as he clutched the mic. Even his voice had regained its gravelly hush, sounding better than it has on his last two albums. And while his eerie upscale-lounge-lizard persona still gives off chills (especially on the lusty “I’m Your Man”), it’s his latter-day apocalyptic visions that carry the most resonance in these shitty post-millennial times. “Everybody Knows” now sounded less like doomy fiction and more like he was gloomily reciting present-day headlines; he particularly savored the frightening chorus of “The Future” (“It is murder”).
But ol’ Lenny didn’t want to leave everyone without hope. The oft-covered (and misunderstood) “Hallelujah” offered a rousing solace, earning a standing ovation (one of several) mid-set. The hopeful “Democracy” (“. . . is coming to the U.S.A.”) also sounded right on time in ’09. “Hard times are coming . . . some people say it’ll be worse than Y2K,” he told the generally middle-aged-and-up crowd—and his songs bore witness, but also offered relief. And while he stressed what a privilege it was to play for us, after sounding triumphant and soothing when his accompanying femme chorus swelled on “Anthem,” at that very moving moment, we all felt privileged to be there.
But Cohen found his real essence at the end of the sweet “Tower of Song.” As the chorus cooed along, he pleaded with the chorus to continue: “It occurs to me now that what you’re singing is the answer to the great riddle of suffering. I have been graced and untangled and found the right answer. It’s ‘Do dum dum, do dum dum.’ ” The audience chuckled, but he really did see it as salvation—if not for him, then at least for us.