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Leonard Cohen: Live in Dublin, (TrackList follows) – Sony Legacy 88875035582 [12/2/14] 182 min. (3 CDs + 1 Blu-ray) ****½:

(Leonard Cohen, vocals & guitar; Charlie & Hattie Webb and Sharon Robinson, backup vocals; Javier Mas, guitar, laud, archilaud, banduria; Neil Larsen, keyboards & accordion, et al.)

Hats off to fraud and deceit. Had Leonard Cohen’s past manager Kelley Lynch not swindled him out of millions, he wouldn’t have had to emerge from retirement in 2008 and done several new albums. Included among them are some of the best performances of his career, expertly documented in the 2009 Live in London and in this one, recorded in Dublin’s 02 Arena on September 12, 2013.

For a live recording, the sound is full and well engineered. It features the best songs from Cohen’s career, including a few from his 2012 studio album, Old Ideas. Unlike the studio albums, they are amply orchestrated with extended sequences, like Javier Mas’s archilaud solo from The Partisan and Neil Larsen’s deft and smooth keyboard intro and solo in “Darkness.” Cohen’s voice and presentation is diamond-sharp and often arch. Most songs are more dramatically performed than they are on studio albums. It’s clear throughout this set that his ensemble has worked for a long time to refine its approach and it’s paid off.

Cohen’s voice has lost some range over the years. It’s not as bad as Bob Dylan’s now, but it shows, so he wisely made adjustments. Like an aging photographer who no longer drops down to shoot prone, he doesn’t write songs that contain triadic leaps or other vocal adventures. He hired backup singers for the album I’m Your Man (1988) and is never without them. He sings in a modified Sprechstimme, whose notes you can definitely peg only when the Webb sisters sing them in refrain.

And he doesn’t just sing. Sometimes he recites poetry, sometimes he tells stories. In the video bonus from three April 2013 shows in Canada, he tells a wry joke about starting to smoke again (at 80!). And on the DVD, it’s clear that he doesn’t just sing, he performs. It is exhilarating to see how well he physically handles his most famous songs. Toward the end of “I’m Your Man,” he suddenly takes off his hat and adds this new line: “If you wanna try another kind of lover, I’ll wear an old man’s mask for you.” The crowd went wild. When he exits, he doesn’t just walk off the stage. He runs.

What stops me from awarding this set a solid five stars is the quality of the  filming for the Blu-ray. It’s not bad, it’s. . . just okay. Competent. Yet compared to the stellar cinematography on Live in London, the lighting is too contrasting and lacks a range of warmth. Sometimes the angle choice is just wrong, oblique when it should be head on, zoomed out when it should be close-up, and so on.

Minor quibbles. This is a must have for Cohen devotees (and fans of poet-songwriters). At over three hours of music, it’s a better compilation of his stunning career than any “best of” studio recording. I’m thinking seriously of trading in my porkpie hat for a pinch crown fedora.

TrackList:

Dance Me to the End of Love
The Future
Bird on a Wire
Everybody Knows
Who By Fire
The Gypsy s Wife
The Darkness
Amen
Come Healing
Lover, Lover, Lover
Anthem
Tower of Song
Suzanne
Chelsea Hotel
Waiting for the Miracle
The Partisan
In My Secret Life
Alexandra Leaving (Sharon Robinson)
I m Your Man
Recitation w/ N.L.
Hallelujah
Take this Waltz
So Long, Marianne
Going Home
First We Take Manhattan
Famous Blue Raincoat
If It Be Your Will (Webb Sisters)
Closing Time
I Tried to Leave You
Save The Last Dance for Me

—Peter Bates