In 2012, Leonard Cohen is surely considered among the greatest songwriters alive. His 1967 debut Songs of Leonard Cohen is an indisputable classic, and since then he’s written some of the most covered, referenced and imitated songs of the last half-century. Cohen is the spiritual predecessor to a thousand wordy singer-songwriters of today. He’s a master of language and a powerful, insightful and evocative lyricist whose skills have never dulled.
While some might have expected him to call it a day and rest on his laurels as he approaches his 80s, Cohen has persistently refused to ride off into the sunset. He released Old Ideas in January to universal acclaim and has spent the past several months embarking on an exhaustive tour of North America, with a European leg set for 2013. The scale of Cohen’s ambitions certainly hasn’t decreased in his 78th year, and, impressively, neither has the quality of his striking, committed performances.
In a show consisting of two full sets and an encore, Cohen spent somewhere in the neighborhood of three hours on stage delivering classics and deep cuts spanning his entire career. The band was nine in total: a drummer, a bassist, two guitarists, a keyboardist, a violinist and three backing vocalists. Drawing cues from the subdued but sonically rich atmosphere of Old Ideas, the arrangements felt lush but never too busy. Cohen has always been distinguished by his lyrics, but in the past they’ve sometimes fallen victim to overstuffed, dated and otherwise questionable production choices. Songs from records like Various Positions and I’m Your Man benefited from these reworked instrumentals more befitting of his sage words.
Five of Old Ideas‘ ten songs made the setlist, and they felt right at home situated among Cohen’s beloved early material. The tortured grandeur of “Amen” and the self-deprecating humor of “Going Home” are right up there with his finest work. Over the course of the night’s 27 songs, the back catalog favorites got plenty of attention as well. A transcendent rendition of “Suzanne” proved it to be as stunning a song as ever. A gorgeously executed “Hallelujah” demonstrated that Cohen still performs his most well-known and oft-covered song better than anyone who has touched it since. “Bird on the Wire,” “Chelsea Hotel #2″ and “Tower of Song,” which featured Cohen’s tongue-in-cheek attempts at keyboard melody, were also standouts.
Leonard Cohen might be charging an arm and a leg for his tickets nowadays, but it would be tough to argue that he isn’t giving his sizable audiences their money’s worth. Most artists half his age aren’t playing ambitious three-hour shows night after night, and few of his contemporaries could craft setlists that are simultaneously this long and this consistently great if they tried. Cohen is truly one of a kind, and we’re lucky to have him still imparting wisdom as eloquently as ever here in 2012.