These sinners-cum-sages have always derived much of their best work from a fraught relationship with the lord. That remains the case on both of these records—Cohen’s 12th and Hold Steady front man Finn’s first as a solo artist—only this time both are more concerned than usual with death. Of the two, it’s 77-year-old Cohen who affirms life, probably because his is the more serious reckoning.
Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas
“I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.” So Leonard Cohen, in the voice of an entity far more omnipotent than himself, begins this self-described “manual for living with defeat.” He’s winking at you with that “lazy bastard” stuff. Cohen takes his time between records (eight years have passed since his last), but only because he selects his words with care enough for the Book of Life. Cohen has given up on singing per se, and these songs are slow even by his standards, but he still recites gold: “Had to go crazy to love you/Had to let everything fall/Had to be people I hated/Had to be no one at all,” goes “Crazy to Love You,” the ‘you’ he addresses corporeal or otherwise. That has something in common with “I needed so much/to have nothing to touch/I’ve always been greedy that way,” from 1984’s “Night Comes On.” Cohen’s a practicing Jew, but he’s also a practitioner of Buddhist meditation, and his obsession with having and being nothing as a means of attaining peace, or at least relinquishing control (“The older I get, the surer I am that I’m not running the show,” he told the Times in 2009) isn’t surprising for a man who spent five years in a Zen monastery. But peace is even harder than faith, and Cohen’s pursuit of both wouldn’t mean half as much if he weren’t so ornery, so horny, so hellishly funny. ”Both of us say there are laws to obey/But frankly, I don’t like your tone/You want to change the way I make love/I want to leave it alone,” he growls on “Different Sides,” the object of his frustration sounding very corporeal indeed. There is always too much to touch. No one knows that better than the man who’s been to the monastery and back. Be thankful for him while he’s here. A-
Craig Finn: Clear Heart Full Eyes
The title is a play on an oft-repeated motto from the late, great TV series “Friday Night Lights”: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” The point, I think, is to turn the youth and exuberance of that phrase into a description of that sad moment when experience begins to overtake wonder. At least I do after spending some time with the characters inhabiting Finn’s first solo album. Like older versions of the American boys and girls The Hold Steady has chronicled over its spectacular five-album run, these older boys and girls look for redemption in music, church, and booze, almost never in that order. But where The Hold Steady once raised a “toast to Saint Joe Strummer,” Jonny Rotten is the touchstone here. As in, “No future for you, no future for me.” Recorded with Nashville session players, the album works best on folk noir tales like “Western Pier,” in which a drifter who may have just gotten away with something very bad gets more mercy from the judge who’s “sorry love’s been such a let down” than from the lord himself. Less impressive are the moments when, in both voice and words, Finn retreats to the cadences of a Hold Steady album, and you start to miss Tad Kubler’s guitar. Thankfully, Finn’s knack for poetic omission is put to perfect use here. “I went to the SA to get some cigs/I asked the doorman to remember me/I looked up to see the moon/And I saw you and him out on the balcony/It was the same thing that you did to me.” Do we let our minds take us to the extremes of what that “it” could be or is she just, I don’t know, lighting the guy’s cigarette? These characters hurt too much to tell the whole story. B+