MUSIC / Live: When the Cohen gets tough: Leonard Cohen, the existential serenader, is still glad to be glum. Andy Gill reports from the Albert Hall

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The Independent Culture
'YOU KNOW ME, I'm just a journalist of the inner dismal condition.' Leonard Cohen knows his audience well, and his audience, likewise, knows him: we chuckle at the self-deprecation of this assessment, because it ignores, as many did for years, the essential humour of his work, the hollow laugh that renders its dolorous pessimism not just bearable, but enjoyable.

After a show lasting over three hours, his audience knows him even better, though the same can't be said for Len and his own songs; he fluffs the cuckold pay-off lines in 'Everybody Knows' through concentrating too much on his over-emotional delivery.

Less than two years short of his 60th birthday, Cohen seems to have decided he's a soul singer, leaning into his songs with a little bend of the knees, and emoting like crazy throughout. His songs, of course, don't really need this treatment: it's the glum ironies we like, not the soul, particularly when he zooms up an ill-considered octave for the final verse of 'Bird on a Wire'.

This being Cohen, of course, it's still not that far off baritone. That voice is Cohen's Unique Selling Point: when he gets to the line in 'Tower of Song' about being 'born with the gift of a golden voice', he lays it on extra thick, with a subterranean murmur which, I kid you not, elicits the kind of squeals more appropriate to somebody like Suede.

But the screams don't belong to teenyboppers, but to mature women, utterly beguiled by this gentle existential serenader. Between songs, a woman from the fifth or six row of the stalls stole up to the stage and handed him a note. He bent down and clasped her hand warmly in both of his, before pocketing the billet-doux and continuing with the show. Still, the perfect gentleman.

The band on this tour resembles that which appeared here in 1988 - with the two 'angels' on backing vocals even more to the fore - though this one offers more varied arrangements, with violin, tenor sax and synthesised strings lending a refined Palm Court Orchestra feel to many of the songs.

Everyone plays with quiet refinement - the drummer uses mainly brushes and synthetic, programmable drum-pads, the better to control his volume - but the guitarist Bob Metzger, in particular, is superb, serving as Cohen's Robbie Robertson with his subtle touches and string-bending. Metzger's solo on 'Bird on a Wire' is quite exquisite, a model of restraint which refuses to prick the delicate meniscus of atmosphere on which it rests.

It's debatable, though, whether the old songs are any more effective done with the band than by Cohen, solo. Few sounds were quite as evocative as the familiar wavelets of his distinctive fingerstyle guitar, rippling into the second set with 'Avalanche' as a brace of blue spotlights crept over his still form.

The songs are generally prefaced with a spoken verse, as if in preparation for some close textual analysis. This affords space for people to shout out requests, some risible - though Cohen obliges with a verse of 'Loch Lomond', followed swiftly by 'Rule Britannia' and something which I presume is the Canadian national anthem.

'I've been observing your predicament from a distance,' he said, 'and I think you owe the Queen an apology.' This is but one of several dry quips with which Cohen paces the set; between the finale of 'Closing Time' - the country spoof that is his latest single - and the first of innumerable encores, he extended his gratitude to well-wishers and benefactors: 'Thanks for sending me the letters and all the flowers,' he began warmly, pausing before adding, 'but they don't help.' Well, thank heaven for that.

(Photograph omitted)

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