The voice is like an old friend. Over the years it's grown deeper, warmer, reassuring. Where it used to bend ever so painfully out of range and key, it now stays within its acknowledged limits. And the music, which was once threadbare acoustic, has blossomed over the years with female backups and guest vocals, drums that sound programmed even when they aren't and keyboards that suggest someone hit "demo mode" on a $200 Casio from the mall. It's lite-FM music for people who grimace at the thought; it's not unlike those George Jones recordings from the mid-'70s where producer Billy Sherrill "sweetened" the standard country arrangements with lachrymose strings and overbearing backup choirs until Jones nearly suffocated. Except Jones, like Cohen, has too much raw talent and too much personal vision to be overwhelmed. Instead, the rules are rewritten. If your producer gives you cheese, you sell cheeseburgers.
Dear Heather is Cohen's 11th studio album. Coming only three years after Ten New Songs, it's the best album by a 70-year old man this year. In his advancing age, Cohen settled into a prolific work groove, partly the result of his scaled-down ambitions (no song here attempts the epic scale of "Suzanne," "Famous Blue Raincoat" or "The Future") and partly because he allows those around him to do much of the heavy lifting. The album is produced by Leanne Ungar and features the additional talents of Sharon Robinson, Anjani Thomas, Lord Byron and Frank Scott for production, arranging and lyrics on a number of tracks. When Cohen does show up for work, it's after the stage has been set and the audience warmed. He steps to the mic and like Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones or William Shatner, unleashes the "voice" in all its splendorific glee.
None of which would mean a thing if somewhere in this odd construct there wasn't a payoff. In a world of endless imitation, of Nickelback songs that no one not even trained experts can tell apart, it's refreshing to hear Cohen sing with unashamed authority: "Women have been exceptionally kind to my old age." Or to hear the songs unfold at their own stubborn pace, as "The Letters" ticks past in a slow, dooming march. Or to hear Cohen spelling out the words in the title track without tipping his hand as to whether he's aware of his absurdity. It's absolute brilliance from a man too old to care whether or not you notice.