Songs from a Room
First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2007, Volume 14, #5
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Wed May 30, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
Originally issued in 1968, Songs from a Room was Leonard Cohenís follow-up to Songs of Leonard Cohen, his surprisingly successful debut from the previous year. Though it lacked a career-defining song such as Suzanne, it was, in many ways, a better effort because, in crafting the affair, Cohen took more control of his music and his sound. Still, some of the credit for its success must be given to Bob Johnson, the legendary Nashville producer whose previous work with Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Simon and Garfunkel virtually guaranteed a more sympathetic ear and a greater understanding of Cohenís musical direction than previously had been afforded by John Simon, the producer of Cohenís debut. Johnsonís arrangements and the excellent stable of musicians upon which he drew ó such as ace fiddler Charlie Daniels, who also had played on the Dylan sessions ó elevated and clarified the stylistic constructs that had been executed rather muddily on Cohenís prior endeavor.
Nevertheless, Songs from a Room was almost a very different album than it turned out to be. Initial recording sessions that had been undertaken with David Crosby at the producerís helm didnít work out well because Cohen had resisted the former Byrdís attempts to mold his music until it became a part of Californiaís burgeoning hippie-folk scene. Despite his sympathies for many of the ideas floating around in the aftermath of the summer of love, Cohenís musical aesthetics veered more closely to the sounds of country music, which may seem ironic given it was a collection of songs that celebrated transience and bohemian lifestyles. Two selections from the original Crosby sessions ó a tentative recording of Bird on a Wire and a demo of Nothing to One (You Know Who I Am) ó are presented for the first time as bonus tracks on the recently reissued set.
As previously noted, Songs from a Room is more friendly to the ear than Songs of Leonard Cohen was, and Cohenís own unique guitar patterns are featured prominently on each of the recordís compositions. Leonard Cohen is a good guitarist in the same way that Woody Guthrie and Ani DiFranco are good guitarists. While none of these composers are technically very accomplished in musical terms, there is something in the driving, rhythmic thumping that each of these artists employs that forms the perfect bedrock for their lyrics.
Without question, the best-known track on Songs from a Room is Bird on a Wire, which opens the set. The tune has been covered by artists as diverse as The Neville Brothers and Johnny Cash, and for years, Cohen opened his concerts with it because its lyrics focused the singer and, in his own words, "returned me to my duties." Like Suzanne, it is a song that has entered into the publicís consciousness, and itís hard to remember a time when it wasnít a standard part of many musiciansí repertoires. Right after its release, Kris Kristofferson famously told Cohen that Bird on a Wire seemed ancient and that even though he felt the Canadian songwriter had copped the melody from Lefty Frizell, he was going to have the first three lines ó "Like a bird on a wire/like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried in my way to be free" ó carved as an epitaph onto his gravestone.
The rest of the tracks on Songs from a Room hold up just as well. Somehow, they manage simultaneously to sound contemporary and as if they were etched on papyrus. The visionary power of the desert-seers of the Old Testament and the hallucinations of the 1960s psychedelic era have never managed to sit so comfortably alongside each other, before or since. Lyrically, the tunes in this collection cover much of the same ground as Cohenís first record, and compositions such as The Old Revolution, Tonight Will Be Fine, and Seems So Long Ago, Nancy easily rank among the best in Cohenís canon. Even The Partisan, the lone cover song on the set ó with its tale of alienation and heroic resolve ó fits perfectly into the albumís thematic framework. Songs from a Room is a very strong collection of material, and it typically has been underappreciated by many of Cohenís fans. Hopefully, the reissued rendition of this disc will go a long way toward remedying this situation.
Of Further Interest...
Songs from a Room 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