With hindsight, perhaps a Leonard Cohen track wasn’t such a weird choice for The X Factor winner’s song. After all, “I’ve been on such a journey” is the inevitable reprise from any reality TV contestant worth their salt – and nobody’s been on a journey like Leonard Cohen has.
It was 13 years ago that the Canadian songwriter appeared to turn his back on a unlikely late career renaissance, instead taking a vow of silence and travelling to mountains to become a Buddhist monk. After years of meditating in the hills, he returned home, recorded a couple of more albums, and then discovered in 2005 that he’d been swindled out of the vast majority of his retirement fund and publishing rights, leaving him a relative pauper.
So it was that a 70-something Cohen embarked on an gruelling stadium tour of Europe, delighting old fans and engaging with a whole new generation of admirers. The unlikely finale to 2008 was that of not one, but two, versions of one of his most famous songs Hallelujah taking up residence in the Top 3, thus easily repaying the money that was stolen from him.
Live In London is a wonderful souvenir of Cohen’s gig at London’s O2 Arena in July 2008 (with an accompanying DVD also released). The 25 song setlist takes in many eras of Cohen’s back catalogue, and the man himself sounds in fine voice – in fact, that famously deep bass rumble sounds better than ever, with not even a hint of a shake in the vocals.
The problem with live albums is that the connection between artist and audience is often lost, and you’re left with a collection of songs that aren’t quite as good as the studio versions. That’s not the case here, though – it’s obvious from the first note of Dance Me To The End Of Love that the audience have a deep reverence for Cohen, laughing heartily at his many jokes and maintaining a respectful silence through the quieter numbers – indeed, during the spoken word Recitation w/NL, you can almost hear a pin drop.
The feeling is obviously mutual as well, with Cohen taking time out between each song to address his “friends” and give the audience heartfelt thanks for travelling to see him. It would come across as corny in any other hands, but it’s that connection that makes this a truly great live album. Unfairly derided as ‘music to slit wrists to’ years ago, Cohen is an absolute delight during the between song banter, describing the last time he was on stage in London (“it was 14 or 15 years ago…I was 60 years old, just a crazy kid with a dream”) or ad-libbing during the end of Tower Of Song so much that you can hear the backing singers start to giggle.
Cohen’s band is also in excellent form, with long-term collaborator Sharon Robinson and sisters Charley & Hattie Webb not so much taking backing vocals but rather adding new dimensions to the songs here. Cohen even hands over lead vocal duties to Robinson on Boogie Street, and constantly namechecks the other members of his band.
Above all though, it’s those magnificent songs that still stand the test of time. Classics like Bird On A Wire and Suzanne nestle comfortably next to more recent material like the apocalyptic The Future (“I’ve seen the future brother, it is murder”) and the title track from I’m Your Man, the brilliant album which began his career revival back in 1987.
Tracks such as the wonderful Take This Waltz, the sinister First We Take Manhattan and the superb Tower Of Song (which produces an almighty cheer at the famous line “I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice”) are undoubted highlights but predictably enough the highpoint comes with Hallelujah. It may have been covered more than 80 times, but only the original has the power, grace and beauty that Cohen can instil in it. And yes, that includes Jeff Buckley.
The wry humour on display even extends to the setlist, with I Tried To Leave You being the first song of the encore. It’s little touches like that which make Live In London both the perfect souvenir for those who were there on the night and also a handy introduction to one of the true living legends of music.