Songs of Love and Hate
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2007, Volume 14, #6
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Wed June 6, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
Songs of Love and Hate, Leonard Cohenís difficult third album, is perhaps the most neglected and challenging collection of songs in his whole body of work. Even the cover itself is uninviting: Cohenís unshaven face ó bent and twisted into maniacal laughter, with drool plainly visible ó is enough to turn the fainthearted away.
In 1970, on the heels of his first concert tour, Cohen returned to Nashville to resume his relationship with Bob Johnson, the legendary producer who oversaw his previous effort Songs from a Room. Jettisoning the bright arrangements and sympathetic instrumentation that muted the darker edges of Cohenís reports from the interior of his soul, Songs of Love and Hate has no adornments anywhere that can lighten the proceedings. The compositions on the album donít play themselves as much as they cavort ó wheezing and puffing, like a demented carnival parade on the road to Hell. They ooze malice, malaise, and discomfort. Taken in full, they are sick and thick ó a kind of bacchanalian vaudeville that charts the confessions of wayward and defeated souls. There are no moral lessons or satisfying conclusions. If these were meant to be folk songs or even literate dirges, something happened along the way; the lyrics seem invaded by a Satyricon of oiled bodies swirling through the trenches of "some forgotten war" to a dress rehearsal for a play no one will ever see. There is nothing about the set that is happy or uplifting, and the tearing and straining at convention ó even those that Cohen invented himself ó projects an uneasiness that is palpable. Songs of Love and Hate is an uncompromising Cupidís arrow that flies out the window of the asylum.
Whether it was the copious amount of speed, the LSD, the fatigue that he felt at the end of his first tour, or demons that were unseen and unfathomable, itís hard to determine just what the reasons were that led Cohen to embed such discomfort within his work. One thing, however, is for certain: In order to listen to Songs of Love and Hate, it is necessary first to gird oneís loins and to steel oneís mind.
The songs, themselves, are among Cohenís best. Most notably, Famous Blue Raincoat and Joan of Arc ó which were given a second life and an airing out by Jennifer Warnes in the late í80s ó are presented in all of their original, dark glory. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon oneís perspective, Warnesí uplifting voice and interpretations are nowhere in evidence.
Many of the lyrics presented on Songs of Love and Hate are spoken ó barked out rather than sung ó and itís easy to see why Cohen refers to the endeavor as his ode to "European blues." The tone set by the opening track Avalanche, a tale of desperate arrogance and hopelessness in the face of the swirling caprices of fate, is maintained throughout the endeavor. The collection ultimately comes off as somber, bleak, and unrelenting.
Perhaps time will recast Songs of Love and Hate in the light of the work that Cohen has done since the albumís initial release. His eventual rehabilitation and re-invention, from the coolest, bad-ass crooner this side of the River Styx into a Canadian cultural icon, may allow critics to see this outing as a stepping stone on his artistic journey, and it may give them an opportunity to take his lyrical gifts and musical ideas in context. Whatever the case, Leonard Cohen is the real thing, the maker of the mold into which artists from Nick Cave to Lou Reed have poured themselves with varying degrees of success. Given time and patience, Songs of Love and Hate, as difficult and as grating as it can be, must be considered an unqualified success and an aesthetic triumph. In the end, it is as horrible as it is excellent. Play it repeatedly, and then go take a walk. Get some fresh air. Youíll need it.
Songs of Love and Hate is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box