Leonard Cohen – New Skin For The Old Ceremony (1974)

FrontCover1.jpgNew Skin for the Old Ceremony is the fourth studio album by Leonard Cohen. On this album he began to move away from the minimal instrumentation of his earlier work, with the use of violas, mandolins, banjos, guitars, percussion and other instruments producing a more orchestrated (but nevertheless spare) sound. The album has been certified silver in the UK, but never entered the Billboard Top 200.

For his fourth album, Cohen chose to work with John Lissauer, a recent college graduate and rising producer whose jazz background contrasted sharply with Bob Johnston, the Nashville-based producer who had been at the helm of Cohen’s two previous releases, 1969’s Songs From a Room and 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. According to the Anthony Reynolds 2010 book Leonard Cohen: A Remarkable Life, Cohen sat on Lissauer’s couch and played him his new songs on his guitar at the producer’s loft on 18th Street in New York City, and eventually cut a handful of demos at a CBS studio before moving to Sound Ideas studio in February. Reynolds reports that Lissauer had the impression that the whole Nashville experience, including the 1972 European tour with “The Army” (the touring band that Johnson assembled) had been a bit overwhelming for Cohen: “It was like a big wave picking him up, and while he had fun it didn’t quite have the artistic sensibility that Leonard needed. The focus then had been on this Nashville energy thing.”

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Lissauer assembled a new group of musicians to join Cohen in the studio, including double bass player John Miller, as well as engineers Rip Lowell and Leanne Ungar. Lissauer brought a European tinge to many of the songs, adding a depth and richness by employing woodwinds, viola, and strings. The album is notable for its very dry mix, with reverb and echo used very sparingly. The album features several popular Cohen compositions, most notably “Chelsea Hotel #2” (“Chelsea Hotel”, the precursor to “Chelsea Hotel #2”, was only performed live and co-written by Cohen and his guitarist Ron Cornelius). “Chelsea Hotel #2” refers to a sexual encounter in the Chelsea Hotel, probably New York City’s most famous Bohemian hostelry. For some years, when performing this song live, Cohen would tell a story that made it clear that the person about whom he was singing was Janis Joplin. Cohen would eventually come to regret his choice to make people aware that the song was about Joplin, and the graphic detail in which the song describes their brief relationship. In a 1994 broadcast on the BBC, Cohen said it was “an indiscretion for which I’m very sorry, and if there is some way of apologising to the ghost, I want to apologise now, for having committed that indiscretion.”

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According to Ira Nadel’s 1996 Cohen memoir Various Positions, the singer finished writing Chelsea Hotel #2″ at the Imperial Hotel in Asmara, Ethiopia and reworked an early song called “The Bells” into “Take This Longing”. Nadel also notes that several songs, such as “Field Commander Cohen”—about a surrealistic spy known for parachuting “acid into diplomatic cocktail parties”—were influenced by his recent stay in a turbulent Israel, and that the melody for “Who By Fire” (sung as a duet with Janis Ian on the album) is based on the Hebrew melody for the prayer “Unetanneh Tokef” sung at the Mussaf (or noontime service) of the High Holy Days. In an interview with John McKenna of RTÉ in 1988, Cohen discussed the idea behind “A Singer Must Die”: “There’s something I listen for in a singer’s voice and that’s some kind of truth. It may even be truth of deception, it may even be the truth of the scam, the truth of the hustle in the singer’s own presentation, but something is coming across that is true, and if that isn’t there the song dies. And the singer deserves to die too, and will, in time, die.”

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Cohen’s vocals on “Is This What You Wanted” and “Leaving Green Sleeves” are some of his most aggressive and confrontational, although for the most part his singing on the LP is quiet to the point of being almost conversational. The latter is a reworking of the 15th-century folk song “Greensleeves”; Cohen retains the chord progression, but changes the melody and takes the latter verses in a different direction than the original. The song, and in turn the album, ends with Cohen violently screaming the chorus as the track fades out. Cohen would express satisfaction with the album in an interview with Melody Maker’s Harvey Kubernik in March 1975:

For a while, I didn’t think there was going to be another album. I pretty well felt that I was washed up as a songwriter because it wasn’t coming anymore. Actually, I should have known better, it takes me a long time to compose a song…However, last summer I went to Ethiopia looking for a suntan. It rained, including in the Sinai desert, but through this whole period I had my little guitar with me, and it was then I felt the songs emerging – at least, the conclusions that I had been carrying in manuscript form for the last four or five years, from hotel room to hotel room…I must say I’m pleased with the album. It’s good. I’m not ashamed of it and am ready to stand by it. Rather than think of it as a masterpiece, I prefer to look at it as a little gem.

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Cohen would tour in support of the LP, beginning a thirty-three date European trek (his third) in the fall of 1974 followed by his first North American tour in November.

The original cover art for New Skin for the Old Ceremony was an image from the alchemical text Rosarium philosophorum. The image originally came to public attention in C.G. Jung’s essay The Psychology of The Transference (2nd ed.1966), where it is held by Jung to depict the union of psychic opposites in the consciousness of the enlightened saint. (by wikipedia)

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Leonard Cohen was a poet long before he decided to pick up a guitar. Despite singing in a dry baritone over spare arrangements, Cohen is a gifted lyricist who captivates the listener. New Skin for the Old Ceremony may be Leonard Cohen’s most musical album, as he is accompanied by violas, mandolins, banjos, and percussion that give his music more texture than usual. The fact that Cohen does more real singing on this album can be seen as both a blessing and a curse — while his voice sounds more strained, the songs are delivered with more passion than usual. Furthermore, he has background vocalists including Janis Ian that add significantly to create a fuller sound. It is no surprise, however, that he generally uses simple song structures to draw attention to the words (“Who By Fire”). The lyrics are filled with abstract yet vivid images, and the album primarily uses the metaphor of love and relationships as battlegrounds (“There Is a War,” “Field Commander Cohen”). Cohen is clearly singing from the heart, and he chronicles his relationship with Janis Joplin in “Chelsea Hotel No. 2.” This is one of his best albums, although new listeners should start with Songs of Leonard Cohen. (by Vik Iyengar)

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Personnel:
Leonard Cohen (guitar, vocals)
Gerald Chamberlain (trombone)
Lewis Furey (viola)
Ralph Gibson (guitar)
Armen Halburian (percussion)
Jeff Layton (banjo, mandolin, guitar, trumpet)
Barry Lazarowitz (percussion)
John Lissauer (woodwinds, keyboards, background vocals)
Roy Markowitz (drums)
John Miller (bass)
Don Payne (bass)
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background vocals:
Janis Ian – Emily Bindiger – Erin Dickins – Gail Kantor

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Tracklist:
01. Is This What You Wanted 4.15
02. Chelsea Hotel #2 3.08
03. Lover Lover Lover 3.19
04. Field Commander Cohen 4.00
05. Why Don’t You Try 3.51
06. There Is A War 2.59
07. A Singer Must Die 3.18
08. I Tried To Leave You 2.38
09. Who By Fire 2.29
10. Take This Longing 4.06
11. Leaving Green Sleeves 2.40

All songs written by Leonard Cohen

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