A decade ago, Leonard Cohen reinvented himself, adding irony and wit to his celebrated dolefulness. Now, the most literate person in pop emerges from his Zen retreat to talk about his new compilation
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When Bob Dylan has a new album out, as he does now, the highest praise is always along the lines of "his best since ...". His best since Oh Mercy!, they're saying, or even since Blood on the Tracks. It's the same with the Rolling Stones: best since Some Girls, or Exile on Main Street. Never simply the best.

It's different with Leonard Cohen. He was 53 when he released I'm Your Man in 1988, and it is widely, though not universally, regarded as his masterpiece (it takes a very special album to top the Norwegian chart for 17 weeks). More than a great set of songs, this was a self-reinvention. Still the most literate artist in the record shop, still what would now be called a performance poet (and handed a huge advance), he had none the less hit on a radically different sound: chamber pop, with synthesisers replacing acoustic guitar as the lead instrument. And not just any new synthesiser, but an aged, tinny one, the kind played by one-man bands in three-star Mediterranean hotels.

His early work had been lyrical and intensely romantic. Without losing that dimension, he found another - ironic, often comic. He also found a new voice, in the literal sense. His singing, never his strong point, slid down the scale from nasal to throaty. Writes like an angel, sings like a wino. "I was born like this, I had no choice," he sang on "I'm Your Man", "I was born with the gift of a golden voice." Not many pop singers crack jokes; fewer still crack them at the expense of their own abilities. As well as making audiences laugh, the humour gave Cohen the freedom to raise his already famous levels of gloom. He could be really miserable now.

Only in the bubbly realm of pop could this get an artist into trouble. Music to slit your wrists to, someone once said, and the line lodged in the media's head - as if artists were supposed to be cheerleaders. A lifelong manic-depressive, Cohen writes with such verve that even his bleakest lines are uplifting. In his beginning was the word: alone among pop stars, he started out as a man of letters, an award-winning poet and novelist. Scansion and rhyme, chased out of poetry by the modernists, have found a refuge in his lyrics. If Dylan, as he was once described, is Homer in denim, then Cohen, seldom seen without his black suit, is Wordsworth in worsted. And he has far more to offer than technical excellence. Looking back now, we can see that he captured the spirit of two very different ages: the careless rapture and earnest yearnings of the late Sixties, and the weary, fearful ironies of a generation later.

I'm Your Man was followed by The Future (1992), which was almost as good. Similar but more prophetic ("There'll be the breaking of the ancient western code/ Your private life will suddenly explode"), it became the bestselling album of Cohen's career. This is not saying much: in 29 years he has sold 11 million albums - half as many as his fellow Canadian Alanis Morissette has sold since 1995.

He has been with Columbia Records all that time, which is not to say they are close. "I have always been touched," Cohen once said, "by the modesty of their interest in my work." But Columbia have kept plugging away, and now, in yet another doomed attempt to make him popular, they have assembled a compilation of late Cohen: a second Best of that does not come off second-best. Studded with gems, it leaves out songs as memorable as "Ain't No Cure for Love", "First We Take Manhattan" and "Waiting for the Miracle". The 13 tracks are drawn from only three albums, though Columbia cheat by including a version of Cohen's very first song, "Suzanne", from the so-so Cohen Live (1994). That apart, the oldest thing on this album is the cover photograph, taken in 1983 by Cohen's then-lover, Dominique Issermann.

Cohen is 63 now. The other day, he went to the cinema in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles, accompanied, inevitably, by "a young woman friend". Asked if he was over 62, he produced an ID card and claimed his senior citizen's discount - "with pride". He is the first pop star established in the late Sixties to reach his own sixties. The latest of late developers, he was already 34 when, inspired by Dylan's example, he made his first record.

He has never married, although he had two children with Suzanne: Adam, 25, and Lorca, 23, who both live nearby. Adam is a singer-songwriter, of all things, with a record out soon; his father worries that the job is not secure enough. Lorca did a Cordon Bleu course in Paris and is now a pastry chef.

Cohen bristles at the suggestion that his romantic career, which embraced Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Rebecca de Mornay and a unrequited passion for Nico, might be over. "The heart goes on cooking, sizzling like shish kebab." And he goes on describing it thus: he used the same simile to me in 1988, and to Melody Maker in 1977.

He lives alone, mostly in a cabin at the Zen Center, high on Mt Baldy in the middle of LA. In a city famous for its year-round sunshine, Cohen has gravitated to the one part of town that has winter. The mountain gives him what would seem an irresistible opportunity to descend like Moses, bearing demo tapes. Instead his stay there has brought his longest silence. He's working on a volume of poetry, to be called The Book of Longing. But his new songs (only two in five years) have been outnumbered by his biographies - at least three since 1994, one of them in German.

The songs go through more rewrites than a Hollywood script. A track that occupies five minutes of the listener's time may have spent 10 years in Cohen's notebooks, gestating and mutating. "An unfortunate mechanism is at work. I can't discard a verse until I've written it as carefully as the one I would keep." When I interviewed him in 1988, he was excited about a half-written song called "My Secret Life". When we spoke in 1995, he was still working on it, and he quoted from another new song, "A Thousand Kisses Deep". Two years on, both remain under construction.

The most religious of singers, Cohen is not exactly at the Zen Center for religious reasons. "I'm not looking for a new religion. I'm quite happy with the old one, with Judaism." He is there to share the company and thoughts of a 90-year-old Zen master, Roshi, "who may not be around for much longer". In the credits on the new album, there's the usual rollcall of record-company executives, followed by Cohen's children and his sister, Esther. Finally, in the space other men reserve for their girlfriend or their God: "and, of course, Kyozan Joshu, Roshi". One of Cohen's biographers, Ira Nadel, wrote last year: "He cannot commit himself to anyone but Roshi."

So, most of the time, Cohen lives the life of a monk. At 2.30am, as rock'n'roll revs up for a night out, he gets up, to have some time to himself before meditation begins at three. He goes to bed at 9.30pm. When Princess Diana died, he did not hear about it until after the funeral.

He is not, however, so cut-off that he won't do any publicity. "One does dream, one is greedy," he has said. "I want to see if the songs really are too difficult for people to wash the dishes to." Today he has driven down the mountain to a seafront hotel in Santa Monica, to sell his wares. A tobacco-stained murmur seeps out of the phone. When you ask how he is, he says, "Can't complain," which comes well from a man who has built a career on lamentation. When he rings off, he says, "So long", as he did, famously, to a woman called Marianne.



(from the album I'm Your Man, 1988)

A stately chug of a tune, bearing a lyric of two halves. General gloom'n'doom ("Everybody knows that the boat is leaking/ Everybody knows that the captain has lied") gives way to specific gloom'n'doom - the clear-eyed sadness of the cuckold.

Key lines:

Everybody knows

You've been discreet

But there were so many people you just had to meet

Without your clothes

Cohen: "I'm happy with that song. I remember sweating over it, line by line, word by word. I recorded the original track in Montreal, and then in Los Angeles my friend John Bilezikjian put the oud on, which added a great deal to the forward motion of the song. And then Jennifer Warnes did the background vocal - well, the foreground vocal.

"The lyric's strong, it's coherent ... I'll never forgive that girl." It's a particular girl? "Oh, damn right. But you go out on a limb with these songs, they represent an aspect. To get the whole thing, you have to write another song."


(I'm Your Man)

A love song, and a list song. "As straightforwardly as I can, which is still pretty convoluted", Cohen catalogues the things he will do and the people he will be for his loved one. He loves her so much, he doesn't mind if she's a prostitute ("if you want to work the street alone/ I'll disappear for you"). The music is simple too, hardly more than a tinkle and a lilt.

If you want a boxer

I will step into the ring for you.

If you want a doctor

I'll examine every inch of you

Cohen: "I took a lot of it right off a toy synthesiser, a cheap Yamaha. It sounds [tone of admiration] like a bad Eastern European cafe band. Anjani Thomas did the background vocal. I always mentioned the background vocalists because my voice sounds so much better when a woman is singing with me. Some dismal quality in the voice is neutralised.

"The bridge was hard to write - 'the chain's too tight, the moon's too bright, the beast won't go to sleep'. I had a lot of other versions of it that just described a rainy night, I don't know why. That didn't pan out, and then I got to the beast not going to sleep, and the crawling to the bed of the beloved, scratching at her sheets. Very true, very close to my experience."


(I'm Your Man)

"Very closely based" on a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca; Cohen's concerts are worth going to just for the reverential relish with which he utters this name. In waltz time, with a piano (unusually) to the fore, a great cavalcade of romantic imagery dances past: a lobby with 900 windows, a bed where the moon has been sweating, a tree where the doves (a favourite motif of Cohen's) go to die.

I want you, I want you, I want you

On a chair with a dead magazine

In a cave at the tip of the lily

In some hallway where love's never been

Cohen: "Hard to do. It took 150 hours to translate and get it right. I got a lot of books, and a Spanish woman read the poem out in Spanish and gave me the nuances. I think I nailed it. Lorca's sister, who's still alive, wrote me and told me how pleased she was with the song, which was very, very nice because this was my opportunity to do my homage and express my gratitude to this great poet, who touched me very much when I was a kid.

"I named my daughter after him. She's a lovely creature, and very inventive. She really deserves that name."


(I'm Your Man)

Definitive late Cohen: a mission statement, a song about songwriting and ageing ("I ache in the places where I used to play"), set to a regally understated backing.

I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get?

Hank Williams hasn't answered yet

But I hear him coughing, all night long

A hundred floors above me, in the tower of song

Cohen: I guess it expresses the predicament of the songwriter in his middle fifties living in Los Angeles, at the end of a long tradition. It was done on a very early version of the Technics synthesiser, the cha-cha setting. Jennifer Warnes's vocal really brought it to life.

"I do like the line about Hank Williams. He was the kind of songwriter I always wanted to be and wasn't; he wrote great songs in half an hour. Something I never reached was a deep simplicity, a simple emotion clearly and magically presented."


(The Future)

Bob Dylan once told Cohen his songs were getting more like prayers. This one bears him out; it's a slow-motion hymn, drawing deep on a tradition much older than rock.

Ring the bells, that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in

Cohen: "If I did have a coherent philosophy, that song articulated it. It took me an awful long time to write, I never could get that last line." It's not a quotation? "No. At least I hope not ... The bells are not religious necessarily - it's the bell that announces something; they had that in Hydra [the Greek island where Cohen lived in the early 1970s]. There's a beautiful string arrangement by David Campbell, who I believe is Beck's stepfather."


(The Future)

Cohen marches to a different drum: a state-of-the-union address ("Democracy is coming ... to the USA") set to a thumping military beat.

I'm neither left nor right

I'm just staying home tonight

Getting lost in that stupid little screen

Cohen: That was begun in Montreal and interrupted when my son had a serious automobile accident. He's OK now, he's walking and dancing ... I had about 50 verses, so then I had to decide what kind of song to make. I'm kind of happy with it, especially the last verse [above].

"It's hard to find what the real politics of the thing are. I wanted it to transcend a political stance. There was a right-wing talk-show host who used it at his theme, so he saw it as very much pro-American democracy. It was used by Ralph Nader in his presidential campaign tune, representing a critique of American democracy. Don Henley sang it at one of the parties for Bill Clinton's inauguration, so he saw in it some promise of American democracy.

"Some people have suggested that it's prophetic. It's hard to get behind that, to wear that mantle. But when you're writing, your antennae go up, and you're sensitive to nuances in the air. I wrote it before the riots, or the uprising as some people call it.


(The Future)

A howling lyric and a growling vocal for another end-of-the-word number.

I have seen the future

It is murder

Cohen: "Quite a dark, demented lyric set to a rather jaunty tune, moving briskly forward, which mitigates the darkness. I had the chance to indulge myself, to say 'I'm the little Jew that wrote the Bible'. There's a diabolic side to it too. Dylan said to someone, who reported it to me, that it was an evil song. That kind of alarmed me. I don't want to add to the evil in the world."


An exuberant country hoedown, and possibly the first dancing song in the whole of pop in which the singer's partner is an old woman.

She's a hundred but she's wearing something tight

Cohen: "That's my favourite song on the album. A very light-hearted apocalypse. And it evokes that familiar moment when you've been in a bar and the lights go on and you know you will go home alone."


(Cohen Live, 1994; The Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1968)

A concert rendition of Cohen's greatest hit, or nearest thing to one: a slight but lapidary love song, loosely inspired by the wife of a friend, who later became Cohen's lover. She was the mother of his children, and ended up filing a financial suit against him.

And you want to travel with her You want to travel blind And you know that she can trust you For you've touched her perfect body with your mind

Cohen: "A slightly drunken version; I think it was from the last concert of the last tour. The record company wanted it badly, because it's the song I'm most closely associated with. I have very ambiguous feelings about this version, but it does have something to it - an authentic growl. I had a pleasant confessional voice when I began, and then terrible things happened to me, like 50,000 cigarettes, and I got to be this guy you're talking to.

"People know that song, and want to hear it. It's sometimes hard for me to find the way into it, to locate the emotions that originally informed it. Anybody who's touring knows this problem, singing a song after 30 years. I was never so good that I could make a song sound real or authentic without it being that, and if it isn't, people know. I find that quite a lot of red wine will do it."

'More Best of Leonard Cohen' (Columbia) is out now on CD and tape. As well as these nine songs, it also includes two more live tracks, 'Dance Me to the End of Love' and 'Hallelujah', and two new songs, 'Never Any Good' and 'The Great Event'.