Lyrics and Life
By Caitlin Ward
Because of a few songs
They make a secret place
They become naked
Then they bend over the bed
I love Leonard Cohen. When I was a child, I had a doll that I pretended was Cohen. I wrote half of my MA thesis on Cohen. I’m taking my father to see Cohen when Cohen plays in Saskatoon in November. Cohen was an intrinsic part of my childhood; his music is inextricably linked to my upbringing.
I have a very strange relationship with new albums by artists
I like. As soon as I hear a new album is coming out, I immediately don’t
want to listen to it. I know that sounds odd. I think it stems, in part,
from the fact that for much of my early life, I rarely listened to bands
that hadn’t already broken up. My primary source of music was my
parents’ record collection until I was in my mid-teens, and many
of their albums were by bands that no longer existed. In fact, many of
their albums were by musicians who were dead. Even Cohen didn’t
release a lot of albums during my childhood. For my intents and purposes
at the time, Cohen’s back catalogue was complete.
It can be sad to know that an artist or band’s discography will
never grow, but there’s also a comfort in its completeness. There’s
not going to be any surprises with a band that no longer exists. There’s
no shock to the system when the band you have loved releases an album
you hate, or worse, breaks up for NO GOOD REASON.
It doesn’t always have to be as dramatic as that, of course. Part
of it is mental laziness on my part — a new album is a new set
of songs I need to integrate into the existing catalogue, in my mind.
New songs change the way you listen to old songs, for good or ill. And
sometimes, it’s comfortable to keep the music just as it is.
I thought about this particularly today when I looked up
the Ettes, a Nashville-based band. I had reviewed The Ettes’ Look at Life Again
Soon when the album came out in 2008. I gave it a good review, because
I liked it a lot, and I listened to it a lot that year. For some reason,
though, it never occurred to me to keep up with the band’s output.
I wasn’t even sure if the band was still together — they’re
not a famous enough act that their breakup would be plastered on the
cover of music magazines.
I started listening to the album I already owned today, though, and it
made me want to look up The Ettes again. It turns out they have released
two albums since 2008. I decided to buy their newest album: Wicked Will,
which came out last year.
Now, I like it. It didn’t completely blow me away, but it’s
good. It’s less punk and garage rock, and more 1960s psychedelic
surfer and Dusty Springfield. Their lyrics are still oblique but slightly
creepy, and singer Coco Hames’ voice is still sweet and dusky enough
that you don’t immediately notice how confrontational her words
are. I’ll probably listen to this album a lot in the next few months.
But here’s the thing: I’m not very invested
in The Ettes. I like the band, but in terms of my personal history and
emotional investment, they have little on Cohen. And Cohen has been a
source of stress for me in the past. I mentioned that I wrote part of
my thesis on Cohen; because of that thesis, I read all of his early books
of poetry. One of those books really made me angry; there was such casual
misogyny in it, and for a long time I found it hard to reconcile the
music I loved with the poetry I found insulting. It made me listen to
his songs differently; anything that might have seemed a bit sexist previously
became glaringly obvious.
Around the same time, someone gave me a copy of his then-recent
album, Dear Heather. And that album was not great, and also felt a bit
misogynistic. And being in grad school is stressful enough without also
developing a blanket hatred of your thesis topic. It’s hard to forget the
day I called my mother and shouted, “I HATE LEONARD COHEN,” down
the phone. It took me a few years before I was able to listen to Cohen
again without getting pissed off.
I probably have disproportionate anxieties attached to any piece of work by Cohen that is unfamiliar to me. I doubt very much I will have as dramatic a reaction to this new album, Old Ideas, as I did to The Spice-Box of Earth or Dear Heather. But at the same time, I know it will make Leonard Cohen shift once again in my mind — again, for good or ill. It takes a lot of work to shift the way you feel about something, whether it’s as trivial as an album, or as big as a parliamentary debate.
Ward is a freelance writer and aspiring documentary filmmaker based in Saskatoon. You can find her short bursts of insight and frustration at http://www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings