Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen

Tower of Song

(This post is an excerpt from and modification of an essay written in 1998-99.)

In reviews of Suzanne Vega’s last album, “Nine Objects of Desire,” it was frequently stated that the album was her most “sensual” recording. Judging by songs like “Caramel” or “Stockings,” this certainly seemed the case.

But one of the less acknowledged aspects of Vega’s work is the passion underneath the skin of most songs from throughout her career, not just the more recent ones. The 1995 tribute recording, “Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen” (A&M 31454 02592) is an example.

The 13 interpretations say as much about the sensibilities of the artists as they do about Leonard Cohen’s songs. There is everything on this album ranging from the awful to the sublime. Don Henley’s take on “Everybody Knows” is overblown, the edge of Cohen’s lyrics lost amidst the bombast. So too is Elton John’s cover of “I’m Your Man,” which comes across with all the subtlety of a new jingle for Coca-Cola. Tori Amos, while acquitting herself well vocally, sends “Famous Blue Raincoat’s” lyric over the edge into melodrama.

Peter Gabriel sets himself a nearly impossible task — interpreting “Suzanne” — a song that is so well-known and associated with the image of the sensitive troubadour-poet that when singing it one is constantly on the knife-edge between beauty and parody (he manages to avoid falling into parody, but the song also never really takes off).

Trisha Yearwood, Aaron Neville, Willie Nelson, and Jann Arden’s contributions are fine, as is Sting’s version of “Sisters of Mercy,” which is lifted by The Chieftains’ whimsical backing. But only two artists try to go further, try to capture the mystery of Cohen’s lyrics and relish the cadence of his language: Bono’s reading of “Hallelujah” and Vega’s “Story of Issac.”

Vega’s performance seems like it belongs to a different album altogether. It gets inside Cohen’s words and elevates the entire album from the safe predictability of Top 40. The choice of the song itself is revealing. Cohen’s lyric is drawn from the Book of Genesis, Chapter 22, and tells the story of how God tested Abraham’s faith by asking him to sacrifice his only son, Issac.

The chilling final verse of the song foreshadows the conflict between Issac’s sons, Jacob and Essau, in Genesis 27 (The Lord said to Issac’s wife, Rebecca: “Two nations are within you; You will give birth to two rival peoples” Genesis 25:23). It is by far the song on the album least known by the public–but it is the song that stays with you longest after the record is finished.

Backed by Vega’s spare, acoustic guitar and Ron Sexsmith’s ghostly electric guitar, the song captures Vega’s gift for combining the traditional and the progressive, passion with restraint. When she sings “when I lay upon the mountain/and my father’s hand was trembling/with the beauty of the word,” the religious and mythic potential of Cohen’s work is realized. The whole effect–her voice and guitar, Jerry Marotta’s percussion, and Sexsmith’s electric guitar–is a suspenseful, dramatic, and haunting, passion-play.