Ever the Pessimist, Leonard Cohen Sings Of Doom and Gloom

IF that Bronze Age man in the Italian glacier had been thawed out alive, imagine his intriguing reactions to our era.

Well, we don't have him, but we do have Leonard Cohen.

Mr. Cohen is no fossil. But the Montreal-born poet-novelist-singer likes to refer to the 1960s - "a Bermuda Triangle for the idealism of a generation" - as having occurred a thousand years ago. That "doomed decade" was followed by an ice age, as far as Cohen's career in the United States was concerned, that was thawed by his 1988 album "I'm Your Man." His newest release, "The Future, A Record by Leonard Cohen," gives voice to antediluvian apocalyptic utterances that transfixed audiences on his sellout, j ust-ended North American tour.

If you missed Cohen in concert, you can still catch his act on the PBS program "Austin City Limits," whose 19th season begins next January. Cohen and his band taped a performance last month. His 1988 appearance, the show's producers say, provoked the most viewer response in ACL's history.

Whether as a Bohemian poet in 1950s Montreal or a reluctant singer-songwriter in 1960s Greenwich Village, Cohen has always looked on the dark side of things. The sometimes explicit lyrics left in the wake of his relationships tend toward the dismal. But fans are captivated by Cohen's insightful if pessimistic poetry. In addition, a compelling beat and the novelty of his music attract listeners who prefer vinegar to sugar.

Cohen doesn't so much sing as chant, delivering the dire tidings with an irresistible rhythm. The message is suited to his voice - a cavernous monotone like the horn of an ocean liner leaving port.

With his genteel looks and supplicating manner, the performer dresses the part of undertaker. The sublime instrumentation and celestial backup vocals complete the incongruity.

On "The Future," Cohen describes the subject of the title track in one word: "murder." Humanity is plunging, he believes, into a time so horrible that we'll wish for the good ol' days of crack cocaine and the Berlin Wall. "Give me Stalin and St. Paul," Cohen begs. Destruction, salvation, whatever. Anything but tomorrow.

"Closing Time," the first single from the album, is a toe-tapper with country-western echoes. Yet it follows much the same End Times theme: "I lift my glass to the Awful Truth/ which you can't reveal to the Ears of Youth/ except to say it isn't worth a dime."

Lenny, Lenny, why so glum? "The nail polish on the claw is coming off," Cohen explained to the entranced ACL audience. From his apartment balcony, he could see six fires during the Los Angeles riots. The soot settled in his yard. Even his favorite music store was burned. No wonder he calls songs "the ashes of existence."

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