New Skin for the Old Ceremony

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New Skin for the Old Ceremony
New skin for the old ceremony.jpg
Studio album by Leonard Cohen
Released August 11, 1974
Recorded February 1974, Sound Ideas Studio, New York
Genre Folk rock
Length 37:11
Label Columbia
Leonard Cohen chronology
Live Songs
New Skin for the Old Ceremony
Death of a Ladies' Man
Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
Allmusic 4.5/5 stars[1]
Robert Christgau A−[2]
Rolling Stone (mixed)[3]

New Skin for the Old Ceremony is the fourth studio album by Leonard Cohen. On this album, he begins to evolve away from the rawer sound of his earlier albums, with violas, mandolins, banjos, guitars, percussion and other instruments giving the album a more orchestrated (but nevertheless spare) sound. The album is silver in the UK, but never entered the Billboard Top 200.


For his fourth album, Cohen chose to work with John Lissauer, a recent college graduate and rising producer whose jazz background contrasted sharply with Bob Johnson, the Nashville-based producer who had been at the helm of Cohen's two previous releases, 1969's Songs From a Room and 1971's Songs of Love and Hate. According to the Allan Reynolds 2010 book Leonard Cohen: A Remarkable Life, Cohen sat on Lissauer's couch and played him his new songs on his guitar at the producer's loft on 18th Street in New York, and eventually cut a handful of demos at a CBS studio before moving to Sound Ideas studio in February. Reynolds reports that Lissauer had the impression that the whole Nashville experience, including the 1972 European tour with "The Army" - the touring band that Johnson assembled - had been a bit overwhelming for Cohen: "It was like a big wave picking him up, and while he had fun it didn't quite have the artistic sensibility that Leonard needed. The focus then had been on this Nashville energy thing."

Recording and composition[edit]

Lissauer assembled a new group of new musicians to join Cohen in the studio, including double bass player John Miller, as well as engineers Rip Lowell and Leanne Ungar. Lissauer brought a European tinge to many of the songs, adding a depth and richness by employing woodwinds, viola, and strings. The album is notable for its very dry mix, with reverb and echo used very sparingly. The album features several popular Cohen compositions, most notably "Chelsea Hotel #2." "Chelsea Hotel," the precursor to "Chelsea Hotel #2", was only performed live and co-written by Cohen and his guitarist Ron Cornelius. "Chelsea Hotel #2" refers to a sexual encounter in the Chelsea Hotel, probably New York City's most famous Bohemian hostelry. For some years, when performing this song live, Cohen would tell a story that made it clear that the person about whom he was singing was Janis Joplin. Cohen would eventually come to regret his choice to make people aware that the song was about Joplin, and the graphic detail in which the song describes their brief relationship. In a 1994 broadcast on the BBC, Cohen said it was "an indiscretion for which I'm very sorry, and if there is some way of apologising to the ghost, I want to apologise now, for having committed that indiscretion." [4]

According to Ira Nadel's 1996 Cohen memoir Various Positions, the singer finished writing Chelsea Hotel #2" at the Imperial Hotel in Asmara, Ethiopia and reworked an early song called "The Bells" into "Take This Longing." Nadel also notes that several songs, such as "Field Commander Cohen" - about a surrealistic spy known for parachuting "acid into diplomatic cocktail parties" - were influenced by his recent stay in a turbulent Israel, and that the melody for "Who By Fire" (sung as a duet with Janis Ian on the album) is based on the Hebrew melody for the prayer "Unetanneh Tokef" sung at the Mussaf or noontime service of Yom Kippur. In an interview with John McKenna of RTE Ireland in 1988, Cohen discussed the idea behind "A Singer Must Die": "There's something I listen for in a singer's voice and that's some kind of truth. It may even be truth of deception, it may even be the truth of the scam, the truth of the hustle in the singer's own presentation, but something is coming across that is true, and if that isn't there the song dies. And the singer deserves to die too, and will, in time, die." Cohen's vocals on "Is This What You Wanted" and "Leaving Green Sleeves" are some of his most aggressive and confrontational, although for the most part his singing on the LP is quiet to the point of being almost conversational. The latter is a reworking of the 15th-century folk song "Greensleeves"; Cohen retains the chord progression and the words of the first two verses, but changes the melody and takes the latter verses in a different direction than the original. The song, and in turn the album, ends with Cohen violently screaming the chorus as the track fades out. Cohen would express satisfaction with the album in an interview with Melody Maker's Harvey Kubernik in March 1975:

For a while, I didn't think there was going to be another album. I pretty well felt that I was washed up as a songwriter because it wasn't coming anymore. Actually, I should have known better, it takes me a long time to compose a song...However, last summer I went to Ethiopia looking for a suntan. It rained, including in the Sinai desert, but through this whole period I had my little guitar with me, and it was then I felt the songs emerging – at least, the conclusions that I had been carrying in manuscript form for the last four or five years, from hotel room to hotel room...I must say I'm pleased with the album. It's good. I'm not ashamed of it and am ready to stand by it. Rather than think of it as a masterpiece, I prefer to look at it as a little gem.

Cohen would tour in support of the LP, beginning a thirty-three date European trek (his third) in the fall of 1974 followed by his first North American tour in November.


The original cover art for New Skin for the Old Ceremony was an image from the alchemical text Rosarium philosophorum. The image originally came to public attention in C.G.Jung's essay, The Psychology of The Transference (2nd ed.1966) where it is held by Jung to depict the union of psychic opposites in the consciousness of the enlightened saint.

Songs for Rebecca[edit]

Shortly after this album, co-producers Lissauer and Cohen proceeded to work on its follow-up, Songs For Rebecca, which was abandoned. Five songs are known from their live performances during the North American tour of November 1975; they were reworked and recorded few years later: two of them with Phil Spector for Death of a Ladies' Man in 1977 and the other three on Recent Songs in 1979. In the 2010 book Leonard Cohen: A Remarkable Life, Lissauer speculates that his differences with Cohen's manager Marty Marchat may have been the cause for the aborted session:

We started getting more groove oriented...things were going swimmingly actually, so well in fact that we were saying, 'Wow, this could really be successful, this could break through.' This could be an American record as opposed to European or Canadian...and then...then the plug got pulled...Marty Machat and I did not have a great relationship. I had no respect for him because he was quite the well dressed thug. And Leonard was his boy and he was protecting him but also wanted to possess the diamond...We were taking a break and were on a high about the possibilities of this...when suddenly Marty announced that he wanted Leonard to work with Phil Spector! 'What this kid needs is a star producer!'"


In his original review of the album, Paul Nelson of Rolling Stone deemed Cohen's New Skin For the Old Ceremony "not one of his best," disparaging Lissauer's "generally insensitive, melodramatic, obtrusive arrangements," and observes, "Cohen is concerned with the inevitability of tragedy. He is awesomely open to mythic heroism, to the mystique of love, but in the end he believes, as did Ernest Hemingway, that there are no happy endings between men and women, that the only glory is in the attempt." Vik Iyengar of AllMusic calls Cohen's fourth LP "one of his best albums," adding, "The lyrics are filled with abstract yet vivid images, and the album primarily uses the metaphor of love and relationships as battlegrounds."

Cover versions[edit]

"Chelsea Hotel #2" has been performed many times by other musicians. Lloyd Cole covered it on the Cohen tribute album I'm Your Fan, and Rufus Wainwright performed the song at the 2006 live tribute, Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man. Regina Spektor has also covered the song in live performances, as has Lambchop and the song features on their tour only album Rainer on my Parade. Marissa Nadler covered "Chelsea Hotel #2" on her Australian Tour CD and has been known to cover this song in her live performances. It was covered by Brand New, sung by band leader Jesse Lacey. Kevin Devine has also covered it on his She Stayed as Steam Ep. Meshell Ndegeocello covered it during a concert in Paris, France, 30 January 2011. A cover version by American singer Lana Del Rey was posted to her own YouTube page in 2013. It is also referenced in both the title and lyrics of Jeffrey Lewis's song "The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song." "A Singer Must Die" was covered by the Irish art rock group The Fatima Mansions on I'm Your Fan, by Jennifer Warnes on her 1986 album Famous Blue Raincoat, and by the Art Of Time Ensemble featuring (former Barenaked Ladies singer) Steven Page (a Gavin Bryars arrangement) on their 2010 album A Singer Must Die. "Who by Fire" was covered by The House of Love on I'm Your Fan, by industrial band Coil on their 1986 album Horse Rotorvator, and by Buck 65 and Jenn Grant on Buck 65's 2011 album 20 Odd Years. It also appears on the fifth solo album released by the Canadian singer Patricia O'Callaghan in 2011, Matador: The Songs of Leonard Cohen. "Lover Lover Lover" was covered by Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen, scoring him a minor hit in the British charts in 1992. "I Tried To Leave You" was covered by Lera Lynn on Have You Met Lera Lynn? in 2014. The Menzingers released "Sun Hotel #2" which is based heavily on the original track on On The Possible Past, a collection of demos recorded for their 2012 album On The Impossible Past which in turn featured a reworking called "Sun Hotel". The band Phish covered "Is This What You Wanted" at their concert on October 31, 2014 as an encore. Spanish folk singer Joaquín Sabina covered "There is a War" (spanish title: "Pie de Guerra") in his 2005 album Alivio de Luto, with translated lyrics.[5]

On December 16, 2010, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles showcased a series of eleven commissioned art videos inspired by songs from New Skin for the Old Ceremony. The project was curated by Lorca Cohen and Darin Klein.[6] The artists participating in the project were Brent Green, Alex da Corte, Wenston Currie, Theo Angell, Christian Holstad, Sylvan and Lily Lanken, "Lucky Dragons," Kelly Sears, Brett Milspaw, Peter Coffin, and Tina Tyrell.[7] On April 14, 2011, the program screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Track listing[edit]

All songs written by Leonard Cohen.

Side one
  1. "Is This What You Wanted" – 4:13
  2. "Chelsea Hotel #2" – 3:06
  3. "Lover Lover Lover" – 3:19
  4. "Field Commander Cohen" – 3:59
  5. "Why Don't You Try" – 3:50
Side two
  1. "There Is a War" – 2:59
  2. "A Singer Must Die" – 3:17
  3. "I Tried to Leave You" – 2:40
  4. "Who by Fire" – 2:33
  5. "Take This Longing" – 4:06
  6. "Leaving Green Sleeves" – 2:38


  • Leonard Cohen – guitar, vocals, producer
  • John Lissauer – woodwinds, keyboards, backup vocals, producer, arranger
  • Emily Bindiger – backup vocals
  • Gerald Chamberlain – trombones
  • Erin Dickins – backup vocals
  • Lewis Furey – viola
  • Ralph Gibson – guitar
  • Armen Halburian – percussion
  • Janis Ian – vocals
  • Gail Kantor – backup vocals
  • Jeff Layton – banjo, mandolin, guitar, trumpet
  • Barry Lazarowitz – percussion
  • Roy Markowitz – drums
  • John Miller – bass
  • Don Payne – bass


External links[edit]