‘Ah, the man she wanted all her life was hanging by a thread.
” I never even knew how much I wanted you” she said.
His muscles they were numbered and his style was obsolete.
” O baby I have come too late”. She knelt beside his feet.’
– ‘Death of a Ladies Man’ (1977)
Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet and singer-songwriter, is currently undergoing a period of late-career renaissance, having recently completed a world tour that received ecstatic, rave reviews verging on religious reverence, a number one album (“Old Ideas”), and virtual canonisation, in the anti-establishment, as the author and singer of some of the most penetrating, uncompromising lyrics in music.
I have a couple of Cohen albums myself, and there are a fair few songs of his I love, including “Who By Fire”, ” Suzanne” and ” Famous Blue Raincoat”, but I would not quite describe myself as a disciple. The mournful strummings of Cohen’s guitar, which always create such dark cavernous spaces in any room you care to listen to his songs in; his plaintive, sonorous voice, seem almost too painful for me sometimes, as though the man (like his English counterpart, Nick Drake) had, through trial by fire, stumbled upon the secrets of the universe, or at the very least pierced through to the essence of the sad, if joyous, realities of what make us human. I cannot listen to such philosophically wry, morose music on a daily basis.
“Ancient Resins” is a bespoke fragranced body oil made by natural perfumer Mandy Aftel for Leonard Cohen, and he is said to wear it now every day. I find the idea of Mr Cohen (” a lazy bastard living in a suit ” as he refers to himself on one of his new songs) wearing this dignified, but tender, perfume under his shirts, very beautiful – a perfume made for a famous person that for once makes sense.
“She used to wear her hair like you except when she was sleeping.
And then she’d weave it on a loom, of smoke and gold and breathing….”
(“Winter Lady”, 1967)
Like many perfume enthusiasts, I have relished my copy of Mandy Aftel’s “Essence and Alchemy”- a passionate treatise on natural perfumery – for many years, and found it inspiring. Though almost all of my own experiments with perfume creation using essential oil blends have ended in failure (I always get overexcited and put too much of something in, restraint and balance never being my forte), the book is an in-depth look at each aromatic material from historical, cultural and olfactory perspectives, and reading it deepens your understanding of the fundamentals of perfume. At the same time, as I mentioned the other day in my review of Aftelier’s Parfum De Maroc, the scents that this independent perfumer creates often go beyond the standard apothecary preparations found at the aromatherapist’s and into the realms of true artistry, a challenge without full use of the perfumer’s palette of synthetics. While some of the perfumes by the house may lack a certain transparence, they make up for it with an emotive sense of richness, life and spirit that feels very real. Alive.
If Leonard Cohen were ever going to be made a perfume (the words ‘celebrity fragrance’ seem so cheap and crass in the context of this review I am tempted to go back and erase them), you can be sure it was not going to be a pink, fruity floral. But neither could it have been some crass, acrid masculine, despite the old seducer’s reputation. No: it would have to speak, have soul and an air of wisdom, and so Aftel has gone for a blend of Biblical essences that manage to be spiritually reflective without the undue po-faced austerity of many recent incense fragrances; a sensual composition of balms and base notes of resins with a singular heart of organic frankincense. I imagine you could wear Ancient Resins either as a subtle body perfume, or else use it to soften and augment other scents, to add a gentler haze to the dark, otherworldy invocations that certain incense perfumes can bring.
In ‘The Calculus Of Fixation’, Aftel writes that “base notes are the deepest, most mysterious, and oldest, of all perfume ingredients. Every ancient culture used them – indeed, for centuries they were the essence of perfume, so when you work with them, you literally have ancient history in your hands”. She also describes these base notes as “thorny and difficult”, words that I can imagine could also be attributed to Leonard Cohen….
“Thick, unformed, gunky, base notes are a reminder of the unconcious – of all that is shadowed, thick, obscure, but fixed and defining about us – and the inertia and resistance that guard it”……. a perfume then, formed of notes that perhaps attempt to capture the unyielding nature of The Bird On A Wire, who, may have tried, in his own many ways ‘ to be free ‘ but who, like the rest of us, is ultimately tied to the limitations of his own being.
” You strike my side by accident as you go down for your gold”,
sings Cohen in “Avalanche” (1971), religious imagery that alludes, perhaps, to the crucifixion, but which also unwittingly links to the ingredients used in Ancient Resins. Much of the singer’s work deals with suffering and absolution, and there is thus something very fitting about the use of ingredients such as frankincense, elemi, and benzoin that are obtained by wounding the trees in the process of extraction, in the deserts of the Yemen, Somalia or Saudi Arabia, where the workers make incisions in the barks of the trees, and wait for them to pathologically exude their ‘tears’: thick, vital unguents from incised bark that are beautiful-smelling essences with restorative, curative elements, used historically to embalm and preserve the dead in ancient funeral rites, but also to regenerate the tissue of the living. The oils used in this perfume are all skin-cell stimulators, which makes their use in a body oil preparation ideal.
Ancient Resins is a very uncomplicated scent. But it is soothing, and it is warming. While the frankincense works as a light, protecting veil over the deeper resins, the principle note for me in this perfume is not that mystical oil, but rather benzoin, an essential oil I am very drawn to with its balsamic, vanillic smell and its drying, healing properties. It is linked here to an essence I have never smelled before, Balm Of Gilead, a ‘miracle cure’ mentioned in the Old Testament and in various medical texts over the centuries, an essential oil extracted from poplar trees, and seemingly quite a medicinal smell that gives Ancient Resins a hint of bronchial expectorant – a linctus sanctus, if you like, that, for this writer, with his vulnerable lungs that are susceptible to pneumonia and the like, is very comforting.
” O gather up the brokenness, and bring it to me now..
The fragrance of those promises you never dared to vow.
The splinters that you carry, the cross you left behind.
Come healing of the body. Come healing of the mind”.
( “Come Healing” , 2012 )