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Slice o' Life
Two Canadians, both folk-based songwriters known for weaving personal, topical and spiritual yarns into distinctive musical tapestries, have released new double-disc concert recordings that are compelling career retrospectives as well as revealing snapshots of where their music sits today.
Recorded last July, Leonard Cohen's Live in London is probably the more remarkable of the two only because it's an album no one expected to hear. After a 1994 tour, Cohen retreated to a Zen monastery and became an ordained Buddhist monk. Now that's what you call getting out of the business.
"I've studied deeply in the philosophies of the religions," Cohen tells his audience near the onset of Live in London. "But cheerfulness kept breaking through."
Reciting songs in a weathered, whispery and half-spoken baritone, Cohen is a gracious and subdued performer on the album and seems to inhabit fully the spiritual consciousness of his music, as in the ambient gospel reworking of Bird on a Wire. But the darkness is never shunned in Cohen's world, as shown during the still-chilling The Future ("I have seen the future, brother. It is murder.")
The distant romanticism and youthful drama from the decades-old studio versions of songs resurrected for Live in London have faded. But then, Cohen is now 74, a fact reflected with bittersweet whimsy during an introduction to the almost carnal Ain't No Cure for Love. Of his previous visit to a London stage, Cohen tells the crowd, "I was 60 years old... just a kid with a crazy dream."
But there is still incredible elegance to this music, even if mortality hangs in its shadow. Death and romance mingle on Take This Waltz, an ominous bass groove percolates throughout the still desolate First We Take Manhattan and, in the devastating finale of I Tried to Leave You, Cohen's nine-member band becomes a sort of doomsday cabaret that colors gray remains of ruined love ("Goodnight, my darling. I hope you're satisfied.").
Bruce Cockburn is less mystical, more forgiving and equally emotive on his fourth concert album, Slice o' Life. But this new musical journey has no guest list.
The solo acoustic setting, which Cockburn has employed regularly through the years, enhances the dynamics of his continually under appreciated guitar work (the extraordinary instrumental The End of All Rivers), illuminates the narratives of his political postcard songs (the still brilliant Tibetan Side of Town) and warms the sense of repose in more earthy jaunts (Mama Just Wants to Barrelhouse All Night Long).
The favorites are here, too, including Lovers in a Dangerous Time and If I Had a Rocket Launcher. But so are a fistful of less obvious delights, such as the pensive romanticism of Pacing the Cage and the Americana implosion of Kit Carson.
Like Cohen, Cockburn, 63, also offers a few between-song sagas. The wildest, The Mercenary, deals with a summer job offer during college years to work as a gun runner in Central America. "I was 18 years old and didn't have a very well-developed sense of the moral implications."
Feeling "under-qualified," Cockburn declined. "And here we are, here we all are, as a result."
Walter Tunis, contributing music critic