Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen has become a towering musical figure, but his reputation rests on a body of work that would be slim for an artist with only half his years in the business. Dear Heather, Cohen's latest, is only the 11th studio album in a recording career that stretches back to 1968. Long absences punctuate Cohen's worksome time on a Greek island here, an unexplained sabbatical therebut when he does step into a studio, he makes it count. Or at least he used to. The nine-year gap between the brutal, funny 1992 album The Future and 2001's barely audible Ten New Songs seemed to dull Cohen's edge. He spent the time at a Buddhist retreat, but based on the evidence of Ten New Songs, he left it not with greater insight, but with a newfound inability to articulate that had nothing to do with the continued fading of his always-raspy voice.
Dear Heather thankfully reverses that on a track or two. An album-opening reading of Lord Byron's "We'll Go No More A-Roving" (retitled "Go No More A-Roving") sets an autumnal tone that carries through the album and deepens the drama of Cohen's now predictably unadventurous melodies. Cohen's '80s work created tension between his suggestive croak and the bland synth-pop surrounding it, but his latest efforts have relied on unremarkable backup singers and the work of what sounds like the world's worst Steely Dan cover band.
Yet occasionally the pieces still click into place, as with "Because Of," in which Cohen reveals that "a few songs" have won him the favor of women late in life. Ever the heavy-hearted hedonist, he summons up a parade of naked bodies asking for his gaze "one last time." Simultaneously morbid, funny, horny, and profound, it's the one song that captures what Cohen does best, although cases can be made for a few other tracks. "To A Teacher," for example, provides a heartfelt belated eulogy for Montreal poet and Cohen influence A.M. Klein, and beneath the schmaltzy setting of the title track rests an expression of haiku-like economy. But mostly, Dear Heather just coasts on poetic phrasing and inoffensive tunes. Though the album closes with a two-decades-old live version of "Tennessee Waltz," its proper close arrives with "The Faith," an update of a Quebec folk song that repeatedly asks the question, "Oh, love, aren't you tired yet?" Cohen drowns his vocals in the background before fading out entirely, which may be his way of answering the question. It's hard not to hope he's underestimating himself.