Perhaps it stems from his passion for poetry, in which meanings are more comfortably hidden behind metaphors, but Cohen's early-period acoustic-guitar songs, framed by his wispy voice, somehow created an unfathomable distance between the singer and his audience. Ballads like "Sisters of Mercy" and "Suzanne" hinted at romance, longing, and sadness, but no one can agree on which percentage each of these sentiments actually factors into the songs. That's part of their appeal.
If he came onto the scene as a ladies' man — a suave seducer who charmed women out of their clothes through the sheer power of his intellect and savoir faire — the '80s and early '90s marked his transition into our coolest prophet of doom. "Coolest" is accurate in both senses of the word — his booming plainspoken delivery was unspeakably hip and knowing, yet its reserve made his songs chilly to the touch. Tellingly, this era appealed both to sensitive souls like Jeff Buckley and misanthropes like Oliver Stone.
More recently, the man has added to his mystery through his absence. Cohen's last major tour was in 1993. After that tour, he spent time in a Los Angeles Zen center, practically turning his back on music before releasing a new record in 2001, simply titled Ten New Songs. The new Cohen was different — still intoning rather than singing, still buoyed by seductive female backup vocals. But he had re-emerged as a friendly ghost with sad tales and hopeful sentiments that were practically cuddly by his standards. The arrangements had turned jazz-like, adding another layer of frosty restraint to the man's persona, but the pleasure within them was immense.
Is it any wonder that his return to touring has been so widely heralded? Reviews of the new tour, billed as a triumphant run-through of his most celebrated numbers, have the sort of hushed reverence usually reserved for wise sages taking a rare trip down the mountain to speak to the people. As the 2006 documentary Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man made plain, he is beloved by folkies, pop chanteuses, indie-rockers — even Bono. We don't know who Leonard Cohen is, but somehow, we all relate to him. That's not the only definition of what makes an artist, but it's a good one.
Sun., April 5, 8 p.m., 2009