Leonard Cohen has been largely an oddity for the last 15 years; starting in 1977, with the rather ridiculously conceived (Phil Spector produced it) Death of a Ladies’ Man, he’s evolved into something close to a novelty act: a beat stand-up comic dabbling in music. On a typical album he bandies about portentous buzzwords (referring to social pathologies, political hot spots, the Bible, whatever) and sets the result to a variety of tweaked-up chantoozy settings. What he’s striving for is a sort of unholy cross between Jacques Brel and Lenny Bruce. This is not a laudatory ambition; I mean, even if he pulls it off, it’s like, who cares? His new album, The Future, is, I’m sorry to say, the worst of the bunch: musically he dabbles in everything from a countryish violin to weird martial beats to Elvisy gospel backing. The title song sounds like something off Street Legal (that’s not a compliment), and he caps the thing off with an astonishingly indulgent, seemingly unending Ray Charles-ish run at Irving Berlin’s “Always.” Some (a lot, actually) of this may be a joke–there’s an unshakable sardonicism in Cohen’s voice, and he’s no fool, certainly. But his connection with his art–at least insofar as it gets transferred to record–is so unreliable that you can never trust him or it. Too many wires get crossed in the processing. He’d be mostly a joke were it not for two things. The first is that his last album, I’m Your Man, has a goofy integrity and something compelling about it as well. He seemed to want to demonstrate that he could still produce something relevant, and that’s what drove the epic self-justifications on “I’m Your Man” and “Tower of Song.” Second is that there’s still something about him live; on his last outing, nearly five years ago, he fronted an exquisite touring ensemble full of exotic singers and instruments running through a variety of dramatic song settings. If he hasn’t thrown all that into the toilet, the show should be guaranteed bang for your buck. Sunday, 7.30 PM, Park West, 322 W. Armitage; 929-5959.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.