Review: Leonard, the maestro of misery? You must be joking


So it's `official': Leonard Cohen makes the most depressing music on the planet According to the virtual visitors to `The Band' magazine's website, at least Which is, in a way, quite depressing, writes Andy Gill Not the music itself, but that so many punters should consider Cohen's work in such narrow terms There's some confusion here What are the criteria for inclusion? Nick Cave's Murder Ballads, for instance, is not depressing, just ghoulish; and just because their protagonists may have committed suicide does not make The Manic Street Preachers' The Holy Bible, Joy Division's Closer or Nick Drake's Way To Blue particularly depressing works, other than in their capacity to remind one of the deceased In the case of Drake's work, especially, it would seem that people are voting for the suicide rather than the work, which has a light, pastoral quality - indeed, it is the contrast between his work and his fate that fuels the enigma of Nick Drake

Few, however, would quibble with the inclusion of Lou Reed's wrist-slitter Berlin, and even Cohen himself, I'm sure, would appreciate the irony of achieving the dubious honour of being voted the maestro of misery with a greatest hits collection

What's more intriguing, though, is the list of possible candidates who have been ignored by the voters Where, for instance, are the unremittingly gloomy albums from last year by Radiohead and The Verve? Perhaps hindsight is a prerequisite for such judgements, or maybe people just weren't prepared to admit that albums they'd bought so recently could be such thoroughgoing downers

Reputations have to be worked at, and there's no denying that Leonard Cohen has put in the necessary hours over the keyboard honing his crepuscular odes There's a famous tale of Cohen and Dylan meeting a few years ago and expressing mutual admiration Enquiring how long a particular song of Cohen's took to write, Dylan was informed that the Canadian poet had worked on the piece in question for some three or four years When Cohen asked about one of his favourite Dylan songs, he was told, "Oh, about 15 minutes" It's a revealing vignette that speaks volumes about the two artists' working methods - Dylan the spontaneous primitive, Cohen the meticulous wordsmith

But are Leonard Cohen's songs actually depressing? Aside from specific instances such as "Dress Rehearsal Rag", in which a potential suicide grimly contemplates a razor-blade, I don't really think so Cohen's reputation is a clear case of style over substance: people hear that lugubrious baritone and immediately assume that what he's singing must be the most depressing thing imaginable, when the opposite is often the case It's a situation he acknowledges with characteristic irony in the elegiac "Tower Of Song", one of his finest compositions: "I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice" It's typical of the way in which, particularly in his most recent studio albums, The Future and I'm Your Man, Cohen has developed a fine, laconic sense of drollery, particularly with regard to matters of the flesh and the heart

There's a true comedian's sense of timing, for instance, in the way he condenses aching cuckold bitterness into the sucker-punchline of "Everybody Knows", while remaining coolly aloof: "Everybody knows you've been discreet/but there were so many people you just had to meet/without your clothes" It's doubtful, too, whether the potentially tricky subject of cunnilingus will ever be dealt with more elegantly - and erotically - than in "Light as the Breeze": "So I knelt there at the delta/at the alpha and the omega/at the cradle of the river and the seas" Such silver-tongued style! It's no wonder that, of all the singer-songwriters, he retains the most extensive and devoted of female followings

Though his early reputation as the poet of introspective, existential gloom apparently remains unassailable - as witness the current cheery British Heart Foundation television advert (for what, exactly?) featuring a man toppling over in the street with a heart attack as Cohen croons "Waiting For The Miracle" - Cohen himself has broadened his approach to address wider concerns of politics and culture, to which he applies a devastating fusillade of wit These are far gloomier subjects than he's dealt with in the past, but the mature Cohen realises that his greatest weapon is not misery but humour, that a cutting couplet is so much more effective than self-pity

Not, of course, that Cohen would care that much about his reputation one way or the other: for the past few years, he's spent an increasing proportion of his time in a zen monastery high on a Californian mountain, seeking spiritual equilibrium the way others seek fame, drugs or political power

Meanwhile, another Spice Girls single is released next week Now that really is depressing

Music to mope to

1 Leonard Cohen Greatest Hits 2 Lou Reed Berlin 3 Nick Drake Way to Blue 4 Joy Division Closer 5 Tindersticks Second Album 6 Manic Street Preachers The Holy Bible 7 Red House Painters Double Album 8 Baby Bird Dying Happy 9 Tricky Pre-Millennium Tension 10 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Murder Ballads