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Leonard Cohen previews new album at L.A. soiree

Leonard Cohen attends a tribute in Gijon, Spain, October 19, 2011.


"I love to speak with Leonard, he's a sportsman and a shepherd. He's a lazy bastard, living in a suit." So begins Going Home, the elegiac opening song of Leonard Cohen's new album, Old Ideas, which will be released Jan. 31.

Thousands of fans have been able to hear Going Home this week, streamed via The New Yorker – the first time the magazine has featured a song on its website. But a smaller, more exclusive group was treated to a full hearing of the album at a recent L.A. party at the palatial estate of Canadian Consul-General David Fransen.

As a buzzing crowd of about 80 gathered in the courtyard over white wine and mini-quiches, music veterans rubbed shoulders with entertainment industry insiders, and the dress code ran the gamut from sequinned dresses to skinny jeans. Lucky fans who scored an invite were a mix of well-dressed, middle-aged folks and rock-and-roll types, many of them women.

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Fransen's definitely a Cohen fan. "He's someone who has contributed to Canadian content and culture in a way that very few have," he said. "So to have an opportunity to experience him like this – I'll take every opportunity I can get. ... The artistry in his language, the way he puts words and concept together, they always surprise you."

The guest of honour, now 77, made his appearance in the salon, where folding chairs were set up between a set of massive speakers. Sitting quietly in the front row, dressed in his trademark dark suit and with his salt-and-pepper hair cropped close, he kept his back to the room as the audience filed in.

Then, after glowing introductions from Fransen and Columbia Records chairman Rob Stringer, Cohen addressed the crowd. "I'm going to sit facing the speakers so I won't be monitoring your reactions," he said, adding simply, "I hope you enjoy these songs."

Cohen sat with his hands folded while the album played, mouthing the words to his songs. The 10 tracks address familiar Cohen themes of love, loss, redemption, spirituality and sexuality. Many of the songs possess a hymnal quality that would sound appropriate in a church. His voice has become richer and deeper with age, rendering his trademark speak-singing technique all the more affecting. The arrangements, often anchored by pianos, organs and acoustic guitars, are sparse, giving his voice plenty of room.

The crowd barely moved during the 40-minute playback, listening in rapt attention. Afterward, Cohen confessed, "I'm always slightly nervous about the reception of my work." He added that there's also a voice that says he doesn't care. "But then there's that other voice and it was very active tonight."

Cohen also offered a glimpse into his creative process. "I know the spiritual journey is going on but I have so little mastery over it," he said. "I act as a secretary. I don't really know how it works. I wish I did."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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