Like A Man

Adam Cohen’s sublime new album, Like A Man, is an acoustic-driven collection of ten intimate, revealing songs, powered by Cohen’s rich baritone voice, keenly observed lyrics, and elegant melodies. With disarming candor, songs like “Out of Bed,” “Like A Man,” “What Other Guy,” and “Sweet Dominique” ache with unvarnished romantic truths, free from any artifice. The album also pays tribute to Cohen’s father, the legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, with a spare production style that recalls Leonard’s mid-’70s recordings. As one critic commented: Cohen “has hit upon a formula that neither outright imitates nor self-consciously veers away from the work of his father. Instead, Like A Man at once celebrates and embellishes upon the lineage of its creator, with polished yet affecting results.”

But Like A Man almost didn’t happen. Five years ago, Cohen effectively quit the music business after deep disillusionment set in. Despite his having a few modest hits at radio and opportunities to tour the world, fame and fortune failed to materialize with the release of Cohen’s three major-label albums,1998’s self-titled debut, 2004’s French-language Mélancolista, and 2004’s Ex-Girlfriends, which Cohen made with his band, Low Millions. “I was chasing a sound that was not entirely my own,” Cohen says of his pop-rock efforts. “My goal wasn’t to be good, my goal was to be successful.”

Chasing radio airplay meant that a series of personal songs that Cohen had written over the years had never made their way on to any of his albums. “The thing I regret now is not having had the guts and maturity to show a side of myself that’s always been there because I thought it needed to be tempered and disguised,” he says. “It’s taken a long time for me to find my voice, to drop a certain notion of who I think I should be. Like A Man is a sort of a coming of age album. It’s embarrassing to say that at 39 I’m coming of age but here I am.”

Cohen credits three events with paving the way for his return to the music business, and for giving him the courage to release Like A Man. The first was “the sobriety that came with successive failures,” as he puts it. “I was given so many chances in the industry and I squandered them. I found myself doing things like pitching songs to artists I didn’t particularly respect, or trying to score porno movies. I even wrote a rap for an Adidas commercial. I was hardly living the dream.” The second trigger was the triumphant return of Leonard to performing live in 2009. “It left me with a renewed admiration and respect to see him standing on stage, in his late ’70s, at the summit of his powers,” Cohen says. The third, and most important factor was Cohen’s becoming a father himself, to his son Cassius, now four.

“I was sitting at the dinner table with my father to my left and my son to my right and that age-old colloquial light-bulb went off,” Cohen recalls. “I thought, ‘I want to honor my father’s name. I want to leave something for my kid to consult the way I consulted my old man’s work when I was a kid.’ I felt a tie to my family, to the tradition from which I come, and a powerful sense of responsibility to acquit myself of a responsibility that I’ve always had and pursued, but that I hadn’t dignified in my own eyes.”

The idea for Like A Man came about when Cohen’s long-time friend, the producer Patrick Leonard (who has worked with Madonna, Elton John, and Rod Stewart), encouraged Cohen not to give up on the music business. “Patrick said, ‘There’s one glaring thing you haven’t done and that’s make a really intimate, vulnerable, exposed record,’” Cohen says. “He said, ‘I will make it for you. I will produce it. I will pay for the engineer. You can have my studio. But the conditions are going to be very strict. One, you have to play and sing on one microphone. Two, you have three takes. If you can’t get a sound within three takes we move to another one. Three, all the musicians have to be in the same room playing at once.” Cohen thought his friend was crazy, but admits that the process wound up being “absolutely joyous. I wasn’t given the time to torture myself,” he says. “I didn’t have the luxury of track after track to obscure the truth with layers of production.”

Their goal was to make a record inspired by Leonard Cohen’s 1974 album, the sparsely arranged, vocally captivating New Skin For The Old Ceremony. “The two chief elements of it are the use of a nylon-string guitar and vocals that are incredibly intimate, wistful, proud, and sung in a low register,” Cohen explains. “They are counterbalanced by a feminine counterpart so you really get the sense of Yin and Yang, man and woman, female and masculine.” (Jennifer Warnes, one of Leonard Cohen’s longtime collaborators, provides the female counterpoint vocal on Like A Man, while stand-up bass duties on many of the songs are handled by Don Was.) “The production is an exercise in minimalism,” Cohen adds. “To me, it creates that indelible sense that a moment in time has been captured, and that’s indeed what happened because of that strict mandate given to me by Patrick.”

Making an album he describes as “a benchmark” is a satisfying achievement for Cohen, who has been a musician ever since he could walk. “I was always banging on teacups and the backs of chairs, stomping my foot and trying to whistle,” he says. Formally tutored in violin, he taught himself to play drums, piano, and guitar while immersing himself in the music of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Bob Marley, and, of course, Leonard Cohen, growing up. “I remember many times seeing my father in a T-shirt and underwear at the kitchen table strumming his guitar,” he says. “Of course the circumstances under which I was brought up had an influence on me. I sometimes feel it even more profoundly now, when I catch my son watching me in a T-shirt and underwear strumming at the kitchen table myself.”

Now the loop has come full circle. The elder Cohen even had a hand in helping his son name his new album. “After recording you often don’t know what the record’s going to be called,” Cohen says. “I remember nervously clutching my CD and going to my old man’s house. I hadn’t played a single note to him and he didn’t know I had made this little homage to him. I dropped it off and said, ‘Listen, Dad, don’t play the record while I’m here.’ The next day he called me and said, ‘l listened to your record and it took me to a place where nothing else matters. I’m so proud of you and your record should be called ‘Like A Man,’ and so it is.”

Of course seeking the approval not only of one’s family, but also from the public is a double-edged sword. “It confirms my feeling that if I’d only had the courage to do this as my first record I’d be much further along,” Cohen says. “But if it resonates with people, then it’s a delicious validation of this leap of faith I took. It almost gives me license to hope that I’m planting a seed, and that if I’m diligent, my efforts are going to bear fruit.”

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 [April 2012]