Editor’s note from The New Inquiry Magazine, No. 9: Concept Album
“You cheated, you lied; you cheated, you lied,” sings Leonard Cohen, almost inaudibly, over the long fade of “Memories,” a characteristically ambivalent track from his shambolic 1973 album Death of a Ladies Man. These lines, lifted from a canonical doo-wop hit, are ostensibly directed at a high school flame, two-and-a-half decades after the fact, for failing to be true. The wounds over the furtive, frustrating efforts to achieve some sort of sublime contact at a high school dance remain fresh for the man in his 40s singing the song. But he might just as well be singing about old songs themselves, the ones that promised more than he ended up getting. His jaded disappointment can’t fully conceal how stunned he continues to be that the yearning so palpable in love songs never quite translated into a lasting unity, that listening to those songs yields only a fleeting connection that’s already dissolving into a dubious memory before the record ends.
This mix of shock and disappointment inheres throughout Death of a Ladies Man in the ironic — some might say disastrous — pairing of Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound production with Cohen’s dissolute tales of adult sexual desperation. The failure that haunts every song on the album is also the failure of the four-chord progressions which once promised him utopia from every jukebox in Montreal. Bitterness has become inseparable from nostalgia.
This issue of New Inquiry, like Cohen’s Death of a Ladies Man, is about music and failure, about utopias posited and dissipated. But its point is not to argue that music makes nothing happen or that it is everywhere and always mystification and temporary escapism. We’re big enough fans of pop music to know that sometimes the promise of happiness is not always betrayed, that its potential for constructive negation is more abundant than Adorno imagined it could be — even as taste is turned into capital and social media makes selfconsciousness about pleasure a full-time job.
- Editors, The New Inquiry
Support TNI. Subscribe for $2 here.