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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Vital Sounds From a Voice of Wisdom : Leonard Cohen, nearing 60, isn't drying up like many veteran musicians. The singer-songwriter still pleases audiences with the unexpected.

July 07, 1993|RICHARD CROMELIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Because Leonard Cohen's concerts are infrequent, they tend to take on the air of a pilgrimage, with the faithful approaching him more as a spiritual leader than as a mere musician. They don't go to hear "Suzanne" for the millionth time. They go to absorb new wisdom, to get some nourishment, to experience the presence.

The remarkable thing about Monday's concert at the Wiltern Theatre was that Cohen, nearing 60 and 25 years after his first album, offered not only the expected satisfying ritual, but also an element of vital, restless artistic movement.

Whenever you think he should be drying up like many veteran artists, Cohen comes up with a surprise twist. His 1988 brood of new songs--including "I'm Your Man," "First We Take Manhattan" and "Tower of Song"--have taken full root in his body of work and become Cohen standards. And his latest ones show every sign of doing the same.

Backed by an elegant and versatile band, Cohen became a sort of bohemian Neil Diamond as he unfurled the vast mural of "Democracy," a hopeful anthem of political and social upheaval. On the equally sweeping "The Future," the outlook was not so bright (it is, in a word, \o7 murder\f7 ), and Cohen took on the persona of a prophet foretelling chaos and breakdown.

This big subject matter, with its straightforward imagery and absence of irony, constitutes what might be seen as Cohen's public art, a striking contrast to his more familiar interior explorations--the intimate, allegorical pieces that over the years have established the Canadian as the supreme form of the singer-songwriter species.

In novels, poems and mainly his songs, Cohen has put his soul on the line more than most and he's touched disparate generations. "Suzanne," "Bird on the Wire," "Sisters of Mercy" and other early studies of flesh and spirit brought a poetic depth to the '60s era. And his often brutal, bruising encounters with the soul's scariest corners have touched a nerve in the vanguard of the young post-punk crowd.

An audience that reflected that diversity greeted Cohen as a hero on Monday. Wearing his customary dark suit, he displayed a gracious, generous and humble spirit that evinced a deep appreciation for the sacred nature of performance.

His band played elegantly, singers Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla acted as emotional and musical foils, his solo segments were chillingly intimate.

Then there's Cohen's voice. It's always been an effectively dry "non-singer's" voice, but it's now lost some of its edge, and his gravelly whisper didn't always give his precise and elegant lyrics the definition they require. It introduced an element of strain that he's going to have to deal with if it keeps deteriorating, but for now he gets by on sheer force of will.

There seemed to be fewer of the funny and inspiring discourses he used to offer between the songs. In one finely crafted explanation of why he didn't fit in with the '60s crowd, he got a big laugh with an image-mocking reference to himself as "a gloomy chap."

And then there was his profound message of farewell after the final encore:

"Drive home carefully. . . . Hazards are abundant."

From Leonard Cohen, those are words to be taken very seriously.

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