An Incorrigibly Courteous Liar's Last Act: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau
The Dean reviews Leonard Cohen's final album and a trio of records from Jens Lekman.
The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published a number of books over his career including his autobiography, Going Into the City, which was released in 2015 to critical acclaim. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To read more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.
Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker (Columbia) A few weeks before this was released, Cohen deflected rumors of his imminent passing by telling reporters that he intended to live forever; a few weeks after, he cemented his well-earned reputation as an incorrigibly courteous liar by dying. Thus he transformed how these eight songs would be heard and remembered, and accentuated how shrewdly his living will's gravity, austerity, and sparse wit dovetail with its thematic and emotional preoccupations. Feeling impossibly frail and weary, the 82-year-old Cohen parried with a thoroughgoing renunciation—of Jahweh, Jesus, Vishnu, sex, and the acrid jokes he'd been cracking for half a century. A company of musical pallbearers added touches that hint at a consoling spirituality if you give them time and don't insist on actually being cheered up. But note that the most soothing softens a final statement credited solely to the dying man, which you could call a parting gift if it wasn't topped off by an instrumental track that reprises his most enigmatic farewell song: "I wish there was a treaty we could sign/It's over now, the water and the wine/We were broken then, but now we're borderline/I wish there was a treaty/I wish there was a treaty/Between your love and mine." To those literal last words one can only add: hmmm. A MINUS
Read Robert Christgau's essay on Cohen, Our Man, The Sophisticate.
Jens Lekman: Oh You're So Silent Jens (Secretly Canadian '05) Juvenilia recorded 2003-2004, when he was 22 and 23, make clear why Lekman is compared to Jonathan Richman and Stephin Merritt—he too was a pop adept who talked his songs more than sung them. But spiritually he's so different. He shares Richman's sweet innocence. But unlike Richman, he's devoid of irony, slapstick, or post-rockist snark—his words and melodies project his innocence so unassumingly you have to assume that's who he is. As it happens, his "I just want someone to share my life with" is attached to one of his less memorable tunes. But it sticks even so. Your daughter can bring him to dinner any time. A MINUS
Jens Lekman: When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog (Secretly Canadian '04) It would be silly to insist that there's much musical magnetism in the archly received/sampled arrangements or sad-sack delivery of this young Swede's official debut album. But it would be stupid not to want to hear the lyrics again—and again. "Yeah I got busted/So I used my one phone call to dedicate a song to you on the radio"? Quiet yet audacious. "When I said I wanted to be your dog/I wasn't coming on to you/I just wanted to lick your face"? You can't argue with that. "Lick those raindrops from the rainy day/You can take me for a walk in the park"? But that doesn't mean he can't top it. B PLUS
Jens Lekman: Life Will See You Now (Secretly Canadian) Beginning with a Mormon missionary mourning Lady Di and a guy showing his friend a plastic model of his tumor over lunch, Lekman is no longer mooning toward the bland anonymity of his 2012 breakup album. But as with so many great songwriters, his chief concern continues to be love. Usually but not always this means romantic love, although "How I Tell Him" cuts that distinction close and those first two songs make you wonder exactly how secular this humanistic Swede might be--the Mormon is envied, the cancer survivor learns his friend was praying for him. From back when he came on like a nicer relation of Stuart Murdoch, Lekman's romanticism and indeed sexuality have always had a lot of agape in it, hinting at social consciousness only insofar as agape is social consciousness's engine and embodiment. I believe that's because he's Swedish. Be grateful there's still a nation where a fellow can preach an ostensibly apolitical humanism with a clear conscience. A
Allison Crutchfield: Tourist in This Town (Merge) Indie-rock notes from a sweet, intense, failed romance, or maybe a few of them—not her last, anyway, and just maybe these songs will help her achieve that consummation ("Dean's Room," "Expatriate") **
Angel Olsen: My Woman (Jagjaguwar) Never convinces me her melodramatic manner reflects deep pain as opposed to raw aesthetic self-regard ("Intern," "Never Be Mine") *
Lead photo: Leonard Cohen, Facebook.
Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter.