"It's wonderful to be gathered here, on just the other side of intimacy," murmurs Leonard Cohen as he takes the stage for one of last year's hugely successful UK shows.
It's a line which encapsulates the essence of Cohen's late-blooming appeal – as if the audience were gathered here with him, rather than for him – and the wry reference to the intimacy which has been his stock-in-trade for the past four decades, here humorously attenuated to fit the amusingly outsize venues he found himself playing at this late stage of his career.
But what becomes immediately apparent listening to this wonderful double-album is that Cohen is possessed of a rare and remarkable ability to make colossal venues like the Royal Albert Hall and even the O2 Dome shrink to about the size of a police-box – or, more appropriately, a suburban boudoir. Blessed with the most sensual basso profundo since Barry White, he makes the act of singing for thousands seem like pillow-talk for one's ears alone. For confirmation, just listen to the mighty roar of acclaim which greets the now-famous line from "Tower Of Song" about being "born with the gift of a golden voice": it's because every member of his audience is, in a sense, there alone with Leonard as he croons through romantic favourites like "Sisters Of Mercy", "Suzanne", "I'm Your Man", "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye" and "Ain't No Cure For Love", or shares the world-weary wit of "Everybody Knows" and "Democracy".
For so long derided as an inconsolable melancholic fit only to soundtrack the wrist-slitting despair of terminal depressives, Cohen has been reassessed over the last couple of decades as one of pop's subtlest comic talents, the mordancy of his humour sometimes too dark to recognise as droll. Here, his comedic gift is best demonstrated by the timing he brings to his onstage patter.
He opens the set with a one-two sucker-punch combination that effectively maps out the parameters of his art, the unalloyed romantic devotion of "Dance Me To The End Of Love" followed immediately by the bitter, dystopian sardonicism of "The Future". From there on, there's barely a slack moment in the 26 songs, rendered with unassuming grace by the 10-piece band.
His collaborator Sharon Robinson steps up to share "In My Secret Life" and "Boogie Street", and the faint echo of several thousand other collaborators is dimly discernible on many of the tracks, notably a "Hallelujah" which bests even John Cale's statuesque version, and reclaims the song from reality-show imposters and usurpers.
Download this: 'The Future', 'Everybody Knows', 'In My Secret Life', 'Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye', 'Tower of Song', 'Hallelujah', 'First We Take Manhattan'