He may sing like Darth Vader with a smoker’s hack, but Cohen remains one of pop’s great noir poets. As in the past, his strongest suit here is the sorrow and the pity of love. Though he views romance skeptically at best and acridly at worst, for him it’s still the only game in town. On “Anthem,” he sings, “Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the lights gets in.”
On a few songs, he parts the bedroom curtain to take; in the social, political and historical landscape. The title cut, for instance, juxtaposes innocuous Europop with a wild-eyed, Burroughs-like vision of things to come: “I’ve seen the future, brother: It is murder.” “Democracy,” a Revolutionary War—style drum-and-fife march, is a scalding portrait of an America in moral and economic decline.
Cohen’s imagery is never fainthearted, and even when you’re not sure what he’s getting at, you know he’s sure getting at something. Ultimately, though, his vocal limitations undermine him here. Listen to last year’s fascinating I’m Your Fan, a tribute album featuring R.E.M., the Pixies and others, and you’ll hear how powerful a Leonard Cohen song can be. (Columbia)