As most people know, I am a collector of audiences. My favorite moments on live albums are those spaces between songs when a mob belts out orgasmic gusts of adulation. Or, even better, when the instrumentation unravels to its basic roots and lets a room lift the chorus while a vocalist wets his lungs and observes an epidemic of communal goose bumps.
I first became fascinated by this phenomenon as a child with Kiss’ Alive II. It sounded as if the whole city of Los Angeles had swarmed the stage like a fleet of taxiing jets. Other favorites include “Everything Counts,” from Depeche Mode’s 101, where a lone synth whistle nudged the edges of a clamor enamored of its own size and power. Or the final few minutes of the expanded Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture as an entire arena shuffled toward the Hammersmith Odeon exits, murmuring over the dying echo of “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide.” I have autographs from the majority of the Cow Palace Row C that witnessed Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s Rust Never Sleeps. Also in my possession: a soundboard dupe of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” — as recorded in Muskogee! “Do you mock us, bearded sir?” bellowed the audience as one. (Merle chuckled.) Then there’s that Deep Purple BBC session taped prior to Machine Head’s release. To modern ears, the silence that greets “Smoke on the Water’s” opening riff is downright unsettling.
So naturally I am thrilled beyond words with Leonard Cohen’s Songs from the Road, more so than I was with last year’s Live in London, whose scope was confined to the O2 Arena. Oh, the performances were grand, but as a din connoisseur I prefer an international smorgasbord of polite applause.
Songs from the Road answers my plea by trotting across Mr. Cohen’s ballyhooed 2008-2009 world tour to create the sonic equivalent of travel stickers on a steamer trunk. Leonard and his band soothe Ramat Gan Stadium in Tel Aviv with “Lover, Lover, Lover,” then it’s off to the mythical Albert Hall, a considerable distance from the “Chelsea Hotel” Cohen penned to immortality. Yet when the then-74-year-old seductively whispers, “And those were the reasons, and that was New York,” a packed house of Londoners seems to understand. Imagine — this man traversed the universe and addressed palatial rooms with an intimacy usually shared between lovers a pillow apart.
Admittedly, I was a latecomer to the Leonard Cohen phenomenon. I didn’t hear his voice ’til my early 20s, ’92-’93, when an acquaintance slipped me one of those dadblasted mixtapes. Burbling from the flip was the morning-dew-fresh “The Future”; its verbal flourish engulfed my fancy and sent me on a costly binge through a prolific back catalog. Such potent aphrodisiacs. Approximately 2 minutes and 12 seconds into “Love Calls You by Your Name” (Songs of Love and Hate, 1971), it is biological certainty that you will breathe dark, tiny secrets against welcoming, permissive flesh.
But, I digress. Cohen’s band is sumptuous here. Of particular note is wind-man Dino Soldo’s mesmeric flutter on “Waiting for the Miracle” and the divine tonal precision of “Lover, Lover, Lover’s” supporting vocals. Among seamy tours of familiar backstreets (“Chelsea Hotel,” “Suzanne,” “Famous Blue Raincoat”) are newer shadows like “That Don’t Make It Junk.” He may not uncork such beauties often, but oh, how they flow when poured.
As expected, audience participation peaks on “Hallelujah,” caught on Road in the Hipster Alps of Indio’s Coachella. Everyone knows the words because by now, everyone’s recorded it. Here it’s established that the song beats proudest within its creator’s breast; his chorus is returned to him en masse, in appreciation of his stake in the Great American Songbook.
The disc ends, appropriately, with “Closing Time.” The artist tips his hat in farewell from the John Labatt Centre in London, Ontario, cooing distance from his ancestral home of Montreal, Quebec. All roads may cover the world, the sequence seems to say, but they eventually return to a warm light in a familiar window. And we are blessed, indeed, that Mr. Cohen allows us to journey with him.