Monday, March 5, 2012

Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

In which the man who would someday eclipse his peers in the world of decadent Boomer-era singer-songwriters so completely as to scarcely even be considered part of their movement aligns himself with the m.o. of the Stubborn Eclectic -- issuing an incomprehensibly beautiful debut that seems to sprout from him effortlessly, spinning tales like a folklorist, strumming and singing away timelessly in some strange synthesis of Medieval Europe and mid-'60s Greenwich Village, then steadfastedly refusing ever to do anything remotely like it, anything so simple and crowd-pleasing and gentle, ever again. It sets the stage for everything Cohen, the reluctant pop singer, would ever do afterward, but free of all of his later eccentricities: no wheezing, self-sabotaging production tactics; no (or not many) gleefully sadomasochistic lyrics; and a voice that isn't ragged or grunting, is even rather pleasant. For so many of us, of course, Cohen's oddness, the barbed and difficult in the bulk of his output, is what made us fall in love -- but Songs of Leonard Cohen is still much more than a curio, and remains an absolutely staggering outlier in his catalog. Perhaps the primary reason that he would choose never to duplicate it, even though he presumably could anytime, is that he'd made his point and felt no need to belabor it.

Some credit for this phenomenal LP must go to John Simon, Columbia Records' house producer most famous for his work on the first two albums by the Band; his deft, light touch gives Cohen a slightly heightened pedestal without the fussy instrumentation that would seduce many of us and infuriate many others in years to come. Simon's stroke of genius is the way he arranges Cohen's voice and guitar as an unadorned, tightly controlled centerpiece with occasional injections of elaborate instrumentation and, more often, gorgeously incongruous, pure backing vocals. Whatever complements Simon provides, his immediate understanding is of the capability of Cohen to cast a spell upon his audience, so that nothing gets in the way of the faith-and-suffering anthem "Suzanne," no distractions from the way the playful imagery of water as birth and death make it sound so unearthly and defeated at once, the gravestone of a short-lived bond.

More than on any subsequent Cohen record, the classics come at rapid pace, especially on the first half: "Suzanne" is swiftly succeeded by "Master Song," a clear antecedent to the equal but not superior "Famous Blue Raincoat," the now-shocking youth in Cohen's voice a thin disguise for the lover left behind, the prisoner visited after the master recedes, and "your love is some dust in an old man's cough / who is tapping his foot to a tune." Cohen's heroes are frail, powerless, but seldom bitter; the gambler or addict in "Stranger Song" hides behind nothing, nor do the humiliated lovers of "Master Song" or "Winter Lady," in the latter case a willful cuckold, the joyous and simple guitar riff underlying the love in his sacrificing, the cartoonishly high pitch in "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" a calm, knowing tease more than a protest. When anger is permitted, it's as self-deprecating as spiteful; Edie Sedgwick is the apparent target of "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong," but Cohen doesn't come out of it sounding any less ridiculous than she does, the witty roll call of third parties and blue-lipped Warhols a shake of the head and a roll of the eyes. And least of all does the lover on the life-stoppingly moving "So Long, Marianne" leave room for anger at his subject -- it's always simply time to laugh and cry about it all again, the memories of magnficently vivid love and loss trapped in amber: "you held on to me like I was a crucifix," "we met when we were almost young," and "for now, I need your hidden love." You can sense the tolling of the passing years in this baroque piece that Cohen and Simon somehow render as alive and touched as a hymn.

Even at his most accessible (which this undoubtedly is), of course, Cohen's stock in trade is still pain and misery. For all the virtuostic guitar on "Teachers" and uproarious melodic verve of "Stories of the Street," these two cuts buried at the end of the record are drenched in urban malaise and the desperation, starvation, culiminating dread of years -- they almost start to bog down the back half, but the more the themes of the rest of the record deepen the more appreciable they become. Luckily, relief and escape come in the form of "Sisters of Mercy." Talk to some folks and they'll tell you it's about a couple of prostitutes, or some grad students Cohen slept with, or a pair of backpackers, but the chauvinistic interpretations don't seem to carry much weight when the song is so nakedly a document of the singer's -- by extension, his audience's -- escape from depression. Not simply a writerly dark night of the soul, but actual clinical bottom-hitting suicidal hopelessness; the song's equally affecting if you take the sisters as a literal love or not, for what finally matters is here: the focal point of the album, the moment you know that Cohen is the poet lauerate of the weakest corners of our hearts -- "If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn / they will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem."

Dear Heather (2004)
Old Ideas (2012)

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