Leonard Cohen tributes and projects were plentiful even before the poet-singer-songwriter’s death in 2016. Since then, the flow has only increased – to the point where I can easily live without another rendition of the over-covered “Hallelujah.” But Cohen’s half-century-long body of work continues to inspire talented artists of all stripes to put their own stamps on it, often with admirable results. Gay Marshall helps prove the point with her album Back on Boogie Street: Songs of Leonard Cohen.
This thoughtfully conceived 12-track album ranges through Cohen’s catalogue, from his debut in 1967 to the 21st century. The song choices evidently reflect deep personal engagement with the material on the part of both the singer and her arranger, Ross Patterson, the best of whose settings overflow with originality. Marshall even intersperses spoken passages from Cohen’s poems that resonate with the lyrics of the songs into which they’re embedded.
One special thing about Leonard Cohen is that while he developed a distinctive deep basso, as a stylist he remained, relatively speaking, something of a blank throughout his career. This was a man capable of ironically writing the lyric “I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” Thus, few who sing Cohen songs feel much need to compare the quality of their singing with his. For a skillful singer, this is a gift above and beyond the often sublime songs themselves. Marshall, a cabaret singer with a wide-ranging aesthetic, has the interpretive sensitivity and vocal control to color these songs with her own palette, showing her love for them while making them her own.
The album is heavy on selections from 2001’s “Ten New Songs.” On that album the tracks cast slow spells. Marshall and Patterson lean toward faster tempos with far more richly imagined arrangements. The slinky Sade-like feel of the original “Boogie Street” becomes a juicy accordion-spiced Latin number with vocals that begin in a self-consciously theatrical mode but settle down to capture the song’s gentle tension. “A Thousand Kisses Deep” works nicely, equipped with a tasteful bass solo and a dramatic modulation.
On “The Land of Plenty” Marshall brings out colors muted in the original. It segues into a bright march-like version of “Anthem” that stresses the hopefulness of the lyrics (“There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”), but some of the words fly by too fast. Uncharacteristically, the interpretation doesn’t click.
Some tracks require taking a step back to appreciate. “I’m Your Man,” one of Cohen’s best-loved numbers, gets a straight-ahead swing feel that at first seems to miss the song’s dark irony. But as Marshall’s subtle phrasing establishes itself, the shadow slowly falls away. By the time a country guitar solo arrives, the old-timey jazz treatment has given the song a fresh, curiously incongruous flavor. Another Cohen standby, “Everybody Knows,” funky and theatrical here, becomes one of the album’s most rocking and interesting tracks.
“Take This Waltz” gets a delicate but lively arrangement featuring some nice bass work, and bright vocal delivery. It sounds much fresher than the plodding original and rises to thrilling climaxes as the muscular orchestration builds. “That Don’t Make It Junk” takes on a gentle pop-country persona, calling to mind the likes of Patty Loveless, with a tinge of the blues. And an uptempo loungey quality makes “The Future” sparkle.
To me, Tori Amos has always owned “Famous Blue Raincoat.” But put any past versions out of your mind and the song’s beauty is patently evident in this easeful take. I feel an echo of Dusty Springfield as Marshall mines those ineffable, unexpected chord changes on the lyric “Did you ever go clear?”
Reaching back into the ’70s, Patterson provides an eloquent piano and string arrangement for the Brel-ish “Dress Rehearsal Rag.” Marshall introduces it with a bit of a different song, “Came So Far for Beauty,” and a spoken passage from a poem called “Undertow.” Just as Cohen’s genius flowered when he put his poetry to music, his straight poetry gains much from being read aloud, especially in the voice of a person with the singing skills of a Gay Marshall. The beautifully simple “Sisters of Mercy,” which may be my all-time favorite Cohen song, also receives an intro from a poem, after which Marshall sings the straightforward tune with exquisite sensitivity.
“Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” from Cohen’s 1967 debut album is a fine way to close this original and eclectic survey. Marshall makes it a gentle, sad lullaby that soothes even as it makes you think – something of which Leonard Cohen was the acknowledged master. Gay Marshall, Ross Patterson, and their crew of excellent musicians understand that well.
And hallelujah – they didn’t put “Hallelujah” on this thing!
Back on Boogie Street: Songs of Leonard Cohen is available now at online retailers.