Thursday, December 24, 2020

Leonard Cohen: The Future as present

I was visiting a friend in his apartment in Northern Virginia about 30 years ago, small-talking about something or other when he stepped to his turntable to introduce me to a new favorite album of his.

Yes, I had heard of Leonard Cohen, I told him. I knew Cohen mostly as the guy who wrote "Bird on the Wire," which several years prior was a staple of Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. I told Tom that I knew Cohen was a respected songwriter and that I did give a quick listen to one of his early albums once. But it didn't interest me enough to pursue Cohen any further -- he was a bit folky and quiet for my tastes.

"This one's different," Tom promised. "Have a listen. You might like this one." And he dropped the needle onto I'm Your Man, a 1988 effort that dropped Cohen's new songs and aging, croaky, monotone delivery into a big ol' slick production quite typical of that era.

Tom had me pegged on this one. I loved it from the beginning. The charging synth riff that opens the first track, "Then We Take Manhattan" grabbed my interest, and then I was tossed for a pretty good loop by the tuneless, off-key voice that blasted over the top: "They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom/For trying to change the system from within/I'm coming now, I'm coming to reward them." Wow. The second verse introduced a crystal-clear chorus of female voices both in perfect harmony and counterpoint to that impossibly incompetent Cohen croak. 

All those counterbalancing sounds were woven into that pristine, low-key production in a way I had never heard. It carried solidly through the entire album. Once again, I found an album so perfect, I could not get enough of it for months.

I still give this record a listen now and then, and it still sounds great. Still, I never went much further with Cohen, who passed at age 82 the day before that reality-show guy was elected in 2016.

However, a few years after that first encounter with I'm Your Man, I was sitting in a movie theater in South Florida being blown away by Oliver Stone's chaotic 1995 offering, Natural Born Killers, when three Cohen tracks popped onto the soundtrack. All three of those tracks sounded like they could have been lifted straight from the same recording sessions that produced I'm Your Man. I later learned, though, that they were pulled from his 1992 followup, The Future.

A truncated version of that album's 6:41 title track on the NBK soundtrack has become my favorite of all those wonderful Cohen tracks of that era. "The Future" plays over the closing credits of the movie, but this video transposes it over the opening scene. It works great as an unofficial trailer for Natural Born Killers. And I'll be damned if it doesn't shine a prescient light on that 28-year-old song. This shit's got 2020 written all over it, don't ya think?

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