Leonard Cohen has a voice capable of pulling the shades on the brightest of days. He sounds the way a bad hangover feels. His deep, weary baritone makes every song seem like a eulogy, even when he's singing about getting laid -- which is often. The same could be said of Elliott Smith, whose frail timbre could wring tears from a pineapple.
Because of this, Cohen and Smith became icons of the depressive-troubadour type for the '70s and '90s respectively, though neither ever really deserved such a designation. Cohen lusts for fine women and wordplay with a passion as unbounded as his libido, while Smith's albums have always been mostly about love -- and not just the unrequited kind.
This is especially true on Smith's final LP, From a Basement on the Hill. A certain sadness is palpable from the opening strains of the brittle, beatific "Coast to Coast," but this is largely due to the fact that we all know this is Smith's last album. The melancholy soon dissipates as Smith sings of laughing until he cries and dating rich white women. The album's textures are as varied as Smith's moods: Simmering guitars turn "Don't Go Down" into one of his rawest tunes; the bittersweet kiss-off "Shooting Star" sounds like something from the Beatles on a bad day; on the plaintive ballad "The Last Hour," Smith's voice trembles like an infant's upper lip. It's fitting that Basement's highlight is the affecting jangle of "A Fond Farewell," which this album will certainly go down as.
Leonard Cohen once seemed lost to the world as well. He became a Buddhist monk and sequestered himself for six years before returning to music with 2001's 10 New Songs. The album was Cohen's best in ages, largely abandoning the overwrought pop production that marred much of his late '80s and early '90s work.
But on Dear Heather, Cohen regresses a bit, with clumsy smooth jazz and stern spoken-word passages. He frequently gets overpowered by female collaborators Sharon Robinson and Anjani Thomas, who too often co-opt rather than complement Cohen's steely torch songs. And though Cohen's words are often grave here, a lukewarm album from one of music's most enduring presences is much more sobering.