Songs of Leonard Cohen
First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2007, Volume 14, #4
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
As the years pass, some albums become far more than they ever were intended to be. They no longer are mere collections of songs that are bound by liner notes and encased in cover art. Much like the Grateful Deadís American Beauty became a touchstone for the lives of young freaks who hit the road in VW buses ó some forever, some until summer ended and college began ó and Truckiní and Sugar Magnolia ceased to be just music, it is impossible to hear Songs of Leonard Cohen as a Tabula Rasa or blank slate. This effort contains its own embedded psychic software, which comes complete with a kind of brokenhearted GPS that hones the listener into certain neighborhoods of quiet, rainy melancholia.
Although it originally was released in 1967, the "Summer of Love," the only flowers on Songs of Leonard Cohen are mixed with garbage from the harbor; the sense of place that is established is a dark landscape of waterfront factories and broken windows. Standing in the gloom, the listener senses, while vicariously imbibing, Suzanneís proffered tea and oranges, and he can picture the boats coming with goods all the way from China and other places that are even more remote and uncharted. Loneliness and travel, whether voluntary or necessary, float through the tracks of Leonard Cohenís gravely intoned psalms where they connect with lives that have become unhinged and set adrift. One minute, there is regret; the next moment is filled with steely resolution. Forty years later, Songs of Leonard Cohen remains more taut and troubling, more uplifting and emancipating than it was on the day of its release.
Indeed, the opening volley from Cohenís "reports from the interior landscape" makes Songs of Leonard Cohen as pivotal a collection as any other to be released in the late 20th century. In terms of new ground that has been broken, possibilities indicated, it is a statement that is as significant as Kind of Blue, Sgt. Peppersí Lonely Hearts Club Band, Highway 61 Revisited, and Exodus were in their own selected arenas. Like those endeavors, the passage of time has made it more difficult to see the songs clearly, to view them stripped from the cultural context that has grown around them. These 10 tracks are so etched and embedded in the popular consciousness that they have taken on a life of their own. Long ago, they entered what Cohen calls the community of the campfire, and it is hard to imagine the lyrics having been scribbles in a notebook, with tentative chords and changes hesitantly mapped out. Like any music that has left a deep impression on the listener, it is hard to get enough distance from Songs of Leonard Cohen to hear it clearly. A critic can tell you that the album contains evocations of Cohenís Montreal and that the guitar line from Suzanne is meant to echo the tide coming into the harbor of the industrial district bordering the St. Lawrence River. For most of us, however, this is far too exact and unsatisfying. Music is not a dry dance for academics, and these are living breathing songs that are full of blood, semen, and tears.
By 1966, when Cohen began to look for a way to ply his trade as a singer, he already was a literary star in Canada, though he also was virtually unknown to the outside world. If Cohen wasnít so determined or so apocalyptically fatalistic in his trajectory, he might have stayed in Montreal and pursued a polite academic career that was meant to offset his poetic endeavors. The world, however, would have been poorer for it. Taken under the wing of John Hammond ó the legendary producer who brought Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, and, later, Bruce Springsteen to the publicís attention ó Cohen was championed by Judy Collins, who turned three of his poems into songs before he had even recorded them himself.
The session for Songs of Leonard Cohen reportedly was traumatic and difficult, and it immediately was apparent that Cohen had no concept of what to do in the studio. He knew what he didnít like, but he had a hard time communicating what he wanted to achieve. John Simon, the producer that Hammond brought in for the project, clearly was enamored with Dylanís then-recent Blonde on Blonde, and he did his best to give a bombastic sound to Cohenís material. To his credit, Cohen strenuously rejected this approach ó though the recordings remain replete with some strange sound effects from the period. The set finally was completed when Cohen realized the best way for him to sing was to do it in front of the full-length mirror that he had carried into the studio.
Has the concept of the artist as an insecure narcissist that was brought to fruition in this session ever been surpassed? Never mind that! What about the songs? Listening to this album again (and again), after many years, the arrangements are still a weird disaster. There are unnecessary chimes, trills, sound effects, jewís harps, and odd backing vocals all over the place, but the compositions themselves overcome their messy atmospherics. If anything, listening to Songs of Leonard Cohen now reveals that every track is relentless in its insistence upon its right to exist. The lyrics, philosophies, and situations are often extreme, and the listener stands in awe of Cohenís steadfastness. These compositions only work because of his commitment. If he had wavered, questioned himself, or admitted his self-doubt ó if he had lost the game of chicken and dropped his gaze away from the studio mirror ó the entirety of the affair easily could have fallen apart.
Songs of Leonard Cohen is so powerful because Cohenís perseverance was so all-consuming. The songs form ó to use Cohenís simile ó "like smoke around your shoulder," and they insinuate themselves deep into the listenerís consciousness. If allowed to roam freely, they become weighted with symbol and relevance. Like all good poetry, Cohenís lyrics become a kaleidoscope of meanings and associations. Inevitably, his commitment to soldier through this winding pathway of testimonials from his own parch-throated, erotic Kabbalah of experience becomes more astonishing each time it is heard.
None of this, however, should surprise anyone who is familiar with Cohenís work, though it is pleasant to discover after repeatedly listening to Songs of Leonard Cohen that its contents are so tuneful and lovely. Their sheer musicality is often overlooked in favor of lyrical analyses. So many of these tunes ó Suzanne, Hey Thatís No Way to Say Goodbye, and So Long Marianne, among them ó have beautiful melodies that have aged as well as Cohen himself.
Cohenís continued appeal is in itself something of an enigma. Putting on Songs of Leonard Cohen once was a sure way to end a party and clear a room. "Suicide soundtracks," "music that exists for the sole purpose of slashing your wrists," and other similar sticks and stones have been thrown at "laughing Lenny" over the years, but such rebukes seem less valid as time slips past. There is a real germ of hope and joy in all of these songs. Or, maybe as people age, they become more calloused, and the darkness that Cohen evokes isnít nearly as terrifying or surprising as it once was. Whatever the reasons, Songs of Leonard Cohen truly has weathered the storms of time, and it is a better outing than it ever was. Never have the travails of the heart, inarticulate loneliness, and the phantom pressure of train schedules ó "I told you when I came I was a stranger" ó been elevated to such heights. Leonard Cohen wisely has avoided the pressure to be contemporary and hip ó who else on a 1967 LP cover had a haircut and a suit like his? ó and the brave face he wears throughout the endeavor has served him well. Pop musicís lonely duckling ó "we may be ugly, but we have the music" ó has survived it all, and he and this Dead Sea Scroll of a disc have attained a swanlike majesty. Hearing Songs of Leonard Cohen serves as a reminder of the potential of pop music, and it is reassuring to hear that, unlike so many of the albums of youth, it gets better and more resonant with each passing moment.
Of Further Interest...
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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