Reviews: Leonard Cohen, "Live in London"; Bob Dylan, "Together Through Life

April 29, 2009


Leonard Cohen, "Live in London

Like Bob Dylan, 74-year-old Leonard Cohen is a musical treasure, the author of some of the most poetic and beautiful songs of the last half-century, and one of the most distinctive voices of the last century. Yet Cohen's catalog of studio albums not only is far less substantial than Dylan's--there are only 11 to his credit between 1967 and 2004--but it also is much less rewarding, often suffering from fussy overproduction completely at odds with the artist's humble monotone rumble of a voice.

Enjoying a (very) late-career resurgence driven in equal parts by a mountain of debut racked up by an unscrupulous manager and his discovery by a new generation of fans celebrating his work via a flood of covers--from Jeff Buckley's signature version of "Hallelujah" to the two renditions of that song by John Cale and Rufus Wainwright that appeared on the soundtrack to "Shrek"--Cohen has made an unexpected but very welcome return to the stage, and this double album chronicles a performance with a big but only occasionally intrusive band at the O2 Arena in London last July.

With gorgeous versions of all of his most well-known songs--"Hallelujah," "Bird on the Wire," "Suzanne" and nearly two dozen more--"Live in London" serves as a much better introduction to Cohen than any one of his studio albums, and an ideal overview of his amazing artistry. Leonard Cohen performs at the Chicago Theatre on Tuesday and Wednesday [May5-6].

Bob Dyland, "Together Through Life"

The leading contender for the title of America's greatest living songwriter has been preparing us for some time for the inevitable day when one of the adjectives in that description will no longer apply: "I feel a change coming on/But the last part of the day is already gone," Bob Dylan sings on his 33rd studio album. Yet as he prepares to celebrate his 68th birthday later this month, Dylan is as productive as ever--this is the third self-produced disc in a string of modest but winning efforts that also includes "Love and Theft" (2001) and "Modern Times" (2006)--and in the same tune, he notes, "Some people they tell me/I've got the blood of the land in my voice."

Indeed he does, and while the bard isn't doing any heavy lifting on these 10 tracks--Dylan cedes much of the lyric-writing to Beat poet, non-performing member of the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia songwriting partner Robert Hunter, which results in much more romantic fare about loves relished and loves lost--it's a joy to hear the favorite son of Northern Minnesota revel in the shuffling blues he does so well ("Shake Shake Mama," "It's All Good," "Jolene," "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'"), especially with the ideal additions of guitar by Tom Petty cohort Mike Campbell and accordion by David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. In fact, after Dylan's voice, Hidalgo's squeeze box is the most prominent instrument throughout, proving to be the perfect sweet to the infamous sour of that legendary rasping croak.

"Together Through Life" isn't perfect--as on "Modern Life," Dylan veers off the road and into the ditch when he pays tribute to the saccharine pre-rock 'n' roll balladry he also inexplicably loves. (The lugubrious drone of "Life Is Hard" is more than enough to make anyone agree with that statement.) Yet overall, while it may not rank on the list of Dylan's 10 best or most important recordings, it's near the top of any tally of his most fun and accessible.