“It’s four in the morning, the end of December, I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better…”
Leonard Cohen was following me around Bosnia. Or rather, his voice was. My Dad was a customs officer and had to drive to the most remote border crossing points, and me, being a penniless student with little to do on my holidays, would fly out to Bosnia to spend to join him on road trips up and down the war-ravaged country.
This was the third time we’d stopped, the third bleak, deserted café in the wasteland of Bosnia after the war. Three different towns, three different ethnicities, three different currencies….and the only unifying factor was bloody Leonard Cohen.
I say “bloody Leonard Cohen” in a fond-but-exasperated way. My father, known in our family as a “Cohen pusher”, would play his records over and over again to anyone who will listen. Holidays to France, with four kids captive in the back seat of our Renault 12, were pure torture.
In revenge, my brothers and I would try to taunt him by staging elaborate suicide scenes, such as lying in wait in the bathroom with a razor poised at the wrist, or play dead on the couch with pills (Smarties) strewn around our lifeless bodies, croaking “We’re doing a Leonard, Dad”.
Never got a rise out of him.
Anyway, the fact that Cohen’s music was playing in each of three cafes or restaurants we stopped at that day made my father very happy indeed. And in a way, it was fitting, because in this country, as broken and divided as it was, there was always more to unite them than divide them. The coffee was the same, even though they called it by different names. They all ate those sticky, syrupy cakes made so popular by the Turks during their, um, residence in the country. And they all seemed to really like Leonard Cohen. They might have played First We Take Manhattan at the Dayton peace talks and wrapped the whole thing up quicker.
Cohen himself was a pretty Zen guy. I like to think the universe paid him back by giving him plenty of women, acclaim, and mass turnouts at the comeback concerts he forced to do when his manager stole all his money.
Ancient Resins by Aftelier was developed by perfumer Mandy Aftel in cooperation with, and expressly for, the great Leonard Cohen himself. It smells exactly what you’d think a Zen guy like Leonard Cohen would like – a warm treble base of resins that balances the bitter, cleansing properties of something that might be used in a Shamanic ritual with the dusty smell of wood, paper, and rosin breaking down in old record stores or bookshops.
I’m not sure it makes much sense to analyze this beautiful oil too much – just let it wash over you in a peaceful wave, just like Cohen’s music – because it is, at heart, just a collection of resinous basenotes. And yet, the total effect is uplifting in a way that belies the simplicity of the blend.
Balm of Gilead is a note that jumps out at me, though, for its unusual biblical associations. Looking it up, it seems that the name refers (in religious history) to a balsam that was used as a spiritual balm to weary souls in Talmudic, Old Testament, and Muslim/Arabic history. Sources differ over what species of tree actually produced this balsam, although it seems to be either from mastic (green, herbal-smelling), pine, or terebinth /turpentine trees.
Although the opening notes of the oil are indeed very pine-like, I assume that this comes from the terpenes naturally present in the frankincense, because Mandy After clarifies that the Balm of Gilead note in Ancient Resins comes from poplar buds, from the Populus species of tree. These trees produce a nicely balmy scent on the white undersides of their leaves, and are used to produce the modern-day versions of the Balm of Gilead – basically, a wound- and spirit-healing balm.
And Ancient Resins is healing. It is healing and calming and restorative. I can see why Leonard Cohen reportedly wore this every day of his life. I was, coincidentally, wearing Ancient Resins in my hair when I heard that he had passed away. I had been using it almost every day since I received a generous sample of it, because the American elections had just taken place and I was feeling stressed out. Ancient Resins seems to have the power to right everywhere that is wrong in the world, just like Cohen’s music seemed to be doing in Bosnia that day. A knitting together of things that have been fractured.
I like to think that when he died, Leonard Cohen was laid naked in a white shroud, anointed from head to toe in Ancient Resins, and then burned on a pyre that floats off down the Ganges. But recently, I learned that Cohen loved more than one of Mandy Aftel’s creations. In fact, Mandy Aftel told me that Cohen wouldn’t go out without a drop of her Oud Luban on his person.
Learning that made me reassess my imagining of Leonard Cohen as a gloomy, depressive poet, anointed with the biblical-smelling Ancient Resins. Because Oud Luban is an oud fragrance that takes what Luca Turin mentioned as an “inherent brown study grimness” characteristic of the material and shoots it through with a light-strobing blood orange note that makes it feel like liquid late-afternoon sunshine.
Superior, Hojari-grade frankincense from the Dhofar desert in Oman adds a bright, terpenic freshness that sidles up to the citrus and supports it – think crushed pine needles, with their juicy, lemony, green scent on your fingers after you touch them. And all this against a very smoky, leathery oud oil that is darkness personified. A superb, natural-smelling, joyful balancing of dark and light, Oud Luban displays a sort of switching-on-of-the-Christmas-lights effect. I don’t think I have ever smelled a perfume that works oud quite like this. The smoky, growly undertones of real oud are there alright – no mistaking this for a synthetic variant – but its usual tendency to spread its gravel-voiced gloominess over everything has been reined in by the bright, citrusy resin elements. I think of it as humorous and hopeful.
And maybe this humorous, fey thing is a truer portrait of Leonard Cohen than my historic, mental imagining of his character. My dad recently told me a story he had read somewhere, of Leonard Cohen at a party. He just sat down on his own, picked up a guitar and started to strum, quietly humming the words to one of his famous songs. Bit by bit, women, young and old, began to kneel down at either side of him, listening intently. One of his friends whispered to him, Leonard, did you notice that you’re surrounded by women. Without looking up from his guitar and strumming away, he whispered back, “Works every time”.