A Christmas present from long, long ago…
I’m always surprised that when people write about Leonard Cohen’s music, they neglect to mention quite how cheesy it is; the arrangements on the early records conform to every cliché in the lonesome troubadour’s style guide; Death of a Ladies Man is a psychotically naff album, the sonic personification of Phil Spector’s public image in the mid-’70s; despite containing some of Len’s most iconic material, Recent Songs and Various Positions are rendered near-unlistenable by the chintzy crosshatch of fiddles and violins that violates every pore of the otherwise sparse mise-en-disque; on I’m Your Man, Cohen went for broke, unleashing an arsenal of (then) state-of-the-art poptones, which when juxtaposed with his most sardonic lyrics yet, only served to heighten that record’s mood of wry cosmopolitan detachment. Yes, the backing vocals on Ain’t No Cure For Love went out of date faster than a pot of crème fraiche left on a windowsill in high summer, but this in itself is half the attraction: Laughing Len’s words are all the more powerful when surrounded by the tropes of era-specific pop pap, impervious to fashion and laconically sexy.
The Future doesn’t, as is so often (and so lazily) stated by reviewers, pick up where I’m Your Man left off four years previously: where that album’s closer, Tower of Song, ended with the ambivalent admission that its author was just paying his rent every day (in the tower of song, obviously), The Future begins with a demand and ends with the singer disappearing off the face of the Earth*. Within thirty seconds of his response to the end of the Cold War, Cohen is demanding crack and anal sex, barking orders and throwing ultimatums around like a latterday despot with a Phd in literature. Francis Fukuyama had spoken: history was over. What, then, was the future going to look like? Len had a fair idea, and wasn’t going to sacrifice an iota of hyperbole in articulating it. Things were gonna slide in all directions- he’d seen the future, and brother, it was murder.
But back to the question of cheesiness. That pot of crème fraiche I mentioned had been left out on the windowsill since 1988, and boy did it stink. If you’ve never heard Closing Time, the six-minute centrepiece of The Future, you’re going to have a hard time imagining just how irredeemably corny pop music can be, even when it is the backing for some of the most scabrously hilarious lyrics ever written. It’s basically a line-dancing version of Agadoo by Black Lace, but worse. It’s waay beyond so bad it’s good territory, completely unresponsive to ironic re-appropriation, and yet it’s somehow rather perfect. ‘I miss you since our place got wrecked by the winds of change and the weeds of sex- it looks like freedom but it feels like death’, grunts Leonard, doubtless aware of the song’s masochistic appeal.
Speaking of sex, there’s a lot of it here, and none of it sounds much fun. On songs like the iconic Waiting For the Miracle and Light as the Breeze, it sounds like a gut, animal response to the moral and political implosion outlined on the title track. It’s seedy, solemn and yet still seductive. You can see why Oliver Stone used this album as the core of his sociopathic runaway movie Natural Bron Killers (a film as deliciously dated as this record’s production): ‘Baby let’s get married/We’ve been around too long/Let’s be alone together/Let’s see if we’re that strong/Let’s do something crazy/Something absolutely wrong/While we’re waiting for the miracle to come’.
The Future is, paradoxically, extremely funny, but still a long way from being a barrel of laughs. The apocalyptic pronouncements here make a lot more sense with twenty years of chaotic hindsight than ever before: 1992 was a long time ago, and is now in the process of being cannibalised by the retro-industry. To strike yet further across the frontiers of Pseuds’ Corner, 2012 was once the future- now that that’s no longer the case, it might as well be The Future. If you still read the news, you could be forgiven for agreeing that it’s over- it ain’t goin’ any further. Cohen’s far too disciplined a writer, mind you, to abandon his record entirely to the dark side. Democracy finds some enthusiasm in the downfall of Bush Mk.1, while Anthem contains one of his most quoted (and best) fleurs du mal: There is a crack in everything- that’s how the light gets in.
*In a recording career that spans over fifty years and eleven albums, Cohen has released only one instrumental. Tacoma Trailer, which closes The Future, is a bleak sketch that leaves the listener puzzled and (if this isn’t too irritating a sophism) satisfactorily unsatisfied. That it foreshadows a nine year gap between albums only adds to its cryptic slightness: what does it mean? Probably not much- but it’s always fun to look for “clues” in Cohen’s work. Whether or not there is an intentional message in this most uncharacteristic of Cohen songs, its dying notes mark the opening of a career parenthesis that would only be closed in 2001 by the introductory synth-drum clatter of In My Secret Life from Ten New Songs.