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Thanks For The Dance (Sony)

Have you been reading Nick Cave’s letters online? The ones he sends in reply to people who write with questions about his life and music, grief and artistry, relationships and faith – and pretty much anything else.

Those letters are so often not just insightful but touched with grace, offering comfort and pleasure and respect and depth from the perspective of someone who, whatever the image to the contrary for so many years, genuinely likes people and not just the idea of people.

Which, naturally, leads me to a man Cave has always looked to, from his earliest stirrings as a teenager in Warracknabeal discovering Songs Of Love And Hate. A man once assumed to be something of a misanthrope, or at the very least someone for whom people were more likely to be considered a partnership of failings and weaknesses than anything of joy waiting to be felt.

Three years ago I finished my review of You Want It Darkee (click here), the last album released while Leonard Cohen was alive, by saying “ this album confirms he has much more to say, much more to share, as a sage who doesn’t offer himself as such but rather as a fellow questioner stumbling through”, and it’s still true.

This posthumously released album, which it seems was written as he ebbed away, and was finished by his producer-son Adam with Cohen associates such as Javier Mas (who played Spanish guitar on Cohen’s last tours), Jennifer Warnes and Daniel Lanois, is a source of humour and wisdom drawn from a place of respect.

Understanding, as maybe only someone whose end is imminent can, that no matter your competence or ambition, life tends to be a case of “the goal falls short of the reach”, Cohen casts an eye on himself, and then us.

There’s self-deprecation - or let’s be honest, awareness of the value of self-deprecation - from the very start when he sings “I was always working steady, but I never called it art/I got my shit together, meeting Christ and reading Marx/It failed, my little fire, but it spread the dying spark”, and self-awareness in his regrets at mistakes made as an inconsistent (!) man in relationships.

Alongside them are frank takes on political echoes of fascism and racism, and an enigmatic perusal of the world’s moral options, heaviness that may be balanced by an ageing Lothario’s memories - think a wild west Casanova writing memoirs in a jail – that fair ripples with palpable desire still, as well as wit about his failing body (much as Clive James did in his last decade it’s worth remembering this week) that nonetheless contains the very essence of a long released sigh.

Homing in on the lyrics and to the lugubrious verse-speaking rather than singing which he took to enthusiastically in his later recordings, as we are wont to do with Cohen, does run the risk of not paying due respect to the subdued but nonetheless artful musical work – by Cohens senior and junior - here.

Take for example The Night Of Santiago, where the spotlight might fall on the guitar playing of Javier Mas but should also illuminate the subtle rhythmic pulse of handclaps and rising piano, and a lingering air of heat and stars and satisfaction. And the clip-clop rhythm and surprisingly sweet splash of piano melody in Happens To The Heart, with the perkier mandolin’s interaction with the more sombre guitar in Moving On.

Or how the brief The Goal takes on a blend of elegance and emptiness within its 72 seconds, while The Hills balances between the hint of a harsh modernity in the implacable electric bass and its sister feeling of disquiet in the bowed acoustic bass, and the holy elevation of the female voices promising, as ever, sanctuary and tender judgement.

It’s proof, again, that Cohen could find grace and beauty within, or alongside, any shade. Even – or maybe always - the shade of death.

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