Allen Ginsberg's Wichita Vortex Sutra, though recorded 10 years ago and written almost three decades before that, might be the most timely of three recent, mostly spoken-word releases from the mouths of old Jewish poets. Ginsberg, who died in 1997, composed the Sutra on a February 1966 road trip through Kansas, with news reports of the escalating Vietnam mess playing out amid the placid mid-American landscape and populace. With a panoply of avant-garde New York players wailing along through successive parts of the poem, Ginsberg's 1994 reading nails the experience of driving down the American highway through fading radio waves. Philip Glass, Lenny Kaye and Marc Ribot, among several others, take turns making noise, while Ginsberg conjures a country under the spell of war--and personally repudiates it--with chilling relevance to present circumstances. "Language, language!" he repeatedly decries, recounting newspaper death counts and political euphemisms as an affront to communication itself, and challenging that "official" rendering of reality with the pure voice of poetry.
Leonard Cohen likewise deifies language as the proper response to turbulent times on his new album, Dear Heather. His own 9/11 musing, "On that Day," falls flat, but on his rendition of former mentor F.R. Scott's profound "Villanelle for Our Time," Cohen's voice retains all its oracular power. Other old poets--particularly Jewish and Canadian ones--are in his thoughts as Cohen repeatedly tips his hat here to contemporaries and teachers, and he dedicates the album to recently deceased Canadian publisher Jack McClelland. With questions of mortality and literary legacy weighing on his mind, it's nice to hear ol' Lenny getting a little randy once again on the almost haiku-like title track, and one called "Because Of." Growling over smooth female backing vocals like some Barry White of the mind, Cohen deadpans, "Because of a few songs/ Wherein I spoke of their mystery/ Women have been/ Exceptionally kind/ To my old age." On the whole, Cohen sounds far more energized on his latest than he did on 2001's somnolent Ten New Songs. Quite an accomplishment considering Dear Heather is mostly a spoken album.
Perhaps still getting laid in one's golden years is also what makes William Shatner's new release, Has Been, such a stunningly vital piece of work. The album abounds with the star's delight at his discovery of the power of love, music and, indeed, language. Unlike his infamous Captain-Kirk-on-acid takes on "Mr. Tambourine Man" and Shakespearean soliloquies from his '60s schlock classic The Transformed Man, here Shatner mostly performs his very own, surprisingly well-chosen words, set to collaborator Ben Folds' music. The often-pompous Shatner is shocking in his disarmingly frank confession of the hollowness of celebrity, "It Hasn't Happened Yet." Even more astonishing is Shatner's foray into territory few songwriters would dare tread, plainly recounting his discovery of his wife's 1999 alcohol-related drowning in "What Have You Done." This album, as much as Cohen's--though neither, frankly, can touch Ginsberg--resonates with something very much like wisdom, providing Shatner with the great latter-day role you never knew he had in him: himself.
Leonard CohenDear Heather (Columbia)
William ShatnerHas Been (Shout! Factory)