It is very easy to fall into religious reverence for Leonard Cohen, I myself have been a devotee for quite a while, his incredible charm, his soft spoken manner, his intellectual detachment and spiritual maturity all can very easily make you swoon like a medieval maiden. And yet he himself also manages to snap you out of such unflattering (to you of course) fanaticism and what remains after this big bubble burst is his 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony.
New Skin… is the last album of Cohen’s quiet, folk troubadour phase, standing right between the very era specific Songs of Leonard Cohen/From a Room/of Love and Hate albums and the horrifying pop experiment forced on by Phil Spector, Death of a Ladies’ Man. Thematically, it doesn’t steer away from what Cohen does and has always done, braid love, faith, sex and art into a very literate and extremely charming discourse, delivered in his fascinating even if not yet so grave voice, and in such an intimate manner that you easily believe that he is addressing you and only you. However, what sets this album apart is that this whole mystique is undermined by cynicism and sneering disenchantment showing you the silliness of absolute devotion.
The opener, Is This What You Wanted, clearly establishes this shift in tone from his previous folk ballad efforts, starting off the self-pitying, contempt filled album. The song is a drunken lament about his low, miserable state compared to the immaculately high condition of his love. While very medieval and formulaic at its essence, it still gets to swear and scream at such pretentiousness. This kind of self-undermining cultural and spiritual snobbery is what Cohen will infuse almost all songs of off this record with, at once bowing in front of and spitting on the great themes he addresses. Chelsea Hotel #2, his most beloved and covered track of the album, also looks for sincere love and a true spiritual connection in the coldness of a hotel room blowjob, while also complaining about fame and the shallowness of stardom. As a more classically apologetic and redemption seeking song Lover Lover Lover only tries to blur the lines between religious doubt and inquiry and earthly passion, not really contributing to the overarching self deprecating tone which makes the album great. Like There is a War and Take This Longing, the song is a good Cohen piece, foreshadowing his later in life loving and absorbing presence, but with the minimal means of his early years. Who By Fire, a beautiful duet with Janis Ian, also discusses powerlessness in the hands of god and death, putting things into prayer form. But he also gets sick of these mighty pillars of song, so he turns it around with the most sneering and self referential, almost freak-folk pieces of the album Field Commander Cohen, Why Don’t You Try and A Singer Must Die, all three showing Cohen assuming positions of power favored by the cynical disenchantment he now is capable of showing.
In the first one, he assumes the role of a surrealistic spy ‘parachuting acid into diplomatic cocktail parties’, in a mix between protest song and meta-artistic discourse in which even his guitar playing seems disdainful. While fulfilling its role as a protest song against war, greed and all that, it is also very tongue in cheek about protesting itself, and the ridiculousness that folk music had fallen into due to supersaturation of righteous, highly dignified and heroic singers. Why Don’t You Try assumes the position of the authority figure Cohen tries to address so gravely in his religious pieces, very easily undermining such a figure, being an ode to the self-sufficiency of either single life or faithlessness, both power plays of godly and earthly love being shown as what they really are, simple disappointments. In A Singer Must Die, he also places himself above the crowd in a very sarcastic admittance of the guilt of being better than everyone else. It’s a condescending speech in which the artist, conscious of his misery, still affirms his superiority and sneers at the mere mortals thinking themselves judges of what they cannot quite grasp.
And after this play between seriousness and sarcasm, the album’s last track, Leaving Green Sleeves, lands like a sneering exclamation point confirming all the self-mockery that Cohen has focused his album on, by destroying the medieval Greensleeves with his howling, over the top screams and cynicism, asking whether after ‘singing his songs and telling his lies, to lie between your matchless thighs’ it isn’t ‘fine and wise to finally end our exercise’, a final sarcastic remark, a showstopping act of condescension bringing the album to a close.
As on most his records he links godly love to earthly, carnal passion but on New Skin for the Old Ceremony he tells them both to go fuck themselves, in a very relieving, even if cynical maturity that eases the sentimental tremor Cohen is so famous for. In a completely different sense, Cohen is as charming as ever in his refusal to please and his undermining attitude. The casual Cohen fan will of course find the very intimate ambiance, the very whispery vocals and the sparse orchestration he would become famous for, but the underlying irony which doesn’t yet have the bombastic grandeur of something like 1992’s The Future, or 1988’s Everybody Knows, makes it a unique entry in his catalog, a sparkling ball of cynicism in his usual tirade of sentimentality, before irony became a cliché itself.