Monday, September 17, 2012

Tower of Songs: The Best of Leonard Cohen Revisited

Don't mess with perfection. That's what they say. I'm not sure who "they" are exactly, but in this case, they're sort of wrong. I'd amend that old aphorism thusly: "Don't mess with your own perfection."

Consider: As a writer, it's possible to be too much of a perfectionist and ruin perfectly good copy in the revision process. Not that I've ever produced perfect prose, but over the years, I've learned when to let it go. Occasionally, I've hit "publish" to soon, but that's what the edit button is for. I've never created anything as magical as a Leonard Cohen classic, though, and I'm no plagiarist, so I don't regularly flirt with the danger of messing with anyone's perfection.

Rarely, though, do musicians improve on their own perfection when attempting to reinvent their perfect songs. It's better to leave that to someone else. The cover artist may have a tough task at hand (we're always too ready to hate what they've done, just as we watch film adaptations of beloved books or great TV series expecting the worst -- though, inexplicably, theater buffs seem to be much kinder to Broadway revivals and shows based on material from another medium), but in my listening experience, the odds of producing something listenable are more with you if you're messing with someone else's song.

The Police apparently had no idea what else to do with "Don't Stand So Close to Me" a half decade after going Top 10 with it ("Don't Stand So Close to Me '86" was an unmitigated disaster), and Chicago massacred 1970's "25 Or 6 to 4," the band's first Top 5 single, 26 years later with '80s over-production and a lead singer who wasn't Peter Cetera. I can't think of a symphonic re-imagining or jazz-inflected revision of one's own classic catalog that's ever improved or even matched the source material, not even with an artist as skilled as Joni Mitchell at the helm.

But since I didn't expect Maria McKee to do "The Way Young Lovers Do" quite like Van Morrison did with his 1968 original (which immediately gives women covering guy songs, or guys covering women's songs, an edge), she had the freedom to take it further on 1993's You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, which she did. That might be why a day after first hearing Feist's version of Leonard Cohen's "Closing Time" in Take This Waltz, I still can't get it out of my head.

I've got to be real: Had Cohen messed with his own perfection exactly as Feist did, I'd probably hate it. But under the sleepy, sexy, slightly deranged influence of Feist, I heard a certain swagger in the song that I'd never heard before. I wanted to pull that Johnnie Walker bottle off the shelf in the kitchen and take a swig -- and not just because Cohen mentions JW in the song. It was nearly as enlightening as when I first heard Mary J. Blige taking a swing at U2's "One."

It led me to revisit some other Leonard Cohen covers I've loved over the years. You know an artist is a true treasure when he, or she, leaves behind a golden legacy that includes not only his, or her, own quality back catalog, but other people's interpretations of it as well, which, despite his lower-profile legendary status, would put Cohen, who turns 78 in four days, right up there with Bob Dylan and fellow Canuck Neil Young.

My 4 Favorite Leonard Cohen Covers Before I Heard Feist's "Closing Time"

"Everybody Knows" Concrete Blonde From the 1990 Pump Up the Volume soundtrack (my favorite for the first half of the decade, until Trainspotting came along), which came out shortly before I discovered Cohen, right around when Concrete Blonde could do no wrong. 

"Lover Lover Lover" Ian McCulloch From 1992's Mysterio, his second album without Echo and the Bunnymen, McCullock's remake of Cohen's 1974 song was his biggest UK solo single (No. 47).

"Hallelujah" Justin Timberlake, Matt Morris and Charlie Sexton As well as his film career is going, the former 'N Sync boy bander has only nicked the surface of his talent in music. The standout from the 2010 Hope for Haiti earthquake telethon, Timberlake and company's reading of "Hallelujah" worked for me in a way no previous cover of it that I'd heard had because they sold it in such a straightforward, unfussy way (with fewer baroque vocal flourishes than Jeff Buckley, which is why I never took to his rendition, perhaps the most commercially successful version), nailing the iconic song with reserved understatement.

"First We Take Manhattan" R.E.M. From 1991's I'm Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, one of the best tribute albums of all time (and the first of two dedicated to Cohen in the '90s), possibly the first one I ever bought, and definitely the one that turned me on to Cohen in the first place.

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