Review: A day with Suzanne by Joel Frederiksen

“What’s not to like?” It’s Joey’s classic comeback when his friends ask him how he can stomach Rachel’s trifle/shepherd’s pie. It’s also how I tend to feel about the generally despised subgenre of the classical/pop crossover.

What's not to like?
My friend’s face when I tell him I quite like The Baroque Beatles.

To me, it’s common sense: if you add one good thing to another good thing, the sum can’t be that bad. In this particular case:

  • Renaissance chansons? Good!
  • Leonard Cohen? Good!
  • A tribute to Leonard Cohen by a Renaissance ensemble? Well, let’s dive in …

Cohen unplugged

With ‘A day with Suzanne – A tribute to Leonard Cohen’, American lutenist and singer Joel Frederiksen partly revisits his ten year old idea of putting an Elizabethan mask on Nick Drake songs.

A day with Suzanne by Joel Frederiksen

Here, it works even better. Because notwithstanding his many qualities, Leonard Cohen did not always make the best production choices. If you’re a pedantic fortysomething like me, you no doubt enjoy looking down on millennials who think Hallelujah was written by Jeff Buckley. But the simple fact is that the song would never have become a classic in Cohen’s album version – with less emotional delivery and many more cheap Casio bleep-blobs.

That’s why the sparse lute and viola da gamba arrangements on this record mostly come over like deliciously paired down versions of the originals – while adding interest through the addition of different countermelodies across the different verses. The exception is Famous Blue Raincoat, of which the Cohen album version simply cannot be improved.

Frederiksen’s voice, its range comfortably in between that of young and old Cohen, also feels right. He almost manages to completely eschew the schooled classical delivery that can make these kind of projects so cringy. Although the brittle voice of his partner in crime Emma-Lisa Roux fits the repertoire even better. And their ethereal harmonies are one of the big strengths of this album.

Musical patchwork

But Frederiksen’s ambitions for this album reach further than some tasteful rearranging. He also wants to set up a meeting between Cohen the “modern troubadour” and Renaissance chansonniers such as Orlando di Lasso and Josquin des Prez.

His procedure is to make old/new combinations based on shared textual and even musical motifs. The Cohen song is usually the bulk of each track, while the Renaissance bits are mostly used as intro/outros or interludes.

It’s a concept I very much wanted to like, but initially didn’t. The textual interrelations are very clever – excellently explained here. Musically however, the seams of this patchwork are showing a bit too much. Despite similarities between Cohen and his Renaissance colleagues, their musical language remains sea miles apart. In Suzanne/Susanne un jour, I actually flinch a bit every time the iconic Cohen guitar accompaniment comes in – it veers dangerously close to the stuff they used to do in the ‘70s and ‘80s to attract the youngsters to classical music. Same thing in A Thousand Kisses Deep/Un jour L’Amoureuse Sylvie.

Heavenly ending

Luckily, much like the aforementioned trifle/shepherd’s pie, this album gets better the further you advance into it. In the middle, there’s a delightful dance suite around Dance Me To The End Of Love – itself brought to the stately rhythm of a pavane.

But the two final tracks are where it finally all clicks together. In You want it Darker/Quand me souvient de ma triste fortune the two musical worlds impressively intertwine. My goosebumps moment of the album: the fragment where the Cohen song gets interrupted by some renaissance polyphony that beautifully resolves back to the bass riff. Listen for it around three minutes in.

The final song is, of course, Hallelujah. And, of course, rather the Buckley than the Cohen version. A hymn by Purcell provides the perfect inter- and postlude.

Final balance: if you’re the adventurous type, this album will not disappoint. Especially if you work your way through it backwards.

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