Sunday, October 27, 2013

Leonard Cohen: Songs from a Room (1969)



One of the more egregious examples of an expectation-defying followup, Leonard Cohen's sophomore album couldn't be more different from its polished, transcendent predecessor Songs of Leonard Cohen -- it's rather hard to imagine any other singer-songwriter displaying such a blatant change of approach so quickly. A big part of this violent turnaround is the quick and determined drive away from producer John Simon, who gave Cohen's debut so much of its chamber-pop glitter and helped make its cyclical collection of gorgeous lyrics and melodies such an out-of-nowhere masterwork. Songs from a Room brings collaborator Bob Johnston aboard, and it's quickly evident that Johnston hasn't much interest in woodwinds, choirs, baroque slickness or -- to be perfectly frank -- widespread appeal.

Room looks and feels homemade, starting with its slapdash cover art and extending to Johnston's almost comically minimalistic miking up and accompaniment of Cohen, which amounts to just the man and his guitar -- the approach he wanted to begin with -- and some awkwardly inserted jew's harp, with a blast of organ here and there. Precisely one song has an elaborate enough arrangement to have fit in on Songs of Leonard Cohen: "The Partisan," the one he had no hand in writing but here does include some accordion and some singing children. Elsewhere, Cohen is ragged and direct, almost relishing the thinness of his voice, the sudden absence of any label-mandated obstacles between his words and music and his audience.

The approach is probably more ideal for Cohen in the long run, but it's little surprise initially that this marks a disproportionate drop in popularity from his debut, and honestly one doubts there are many people who would attempt to claim that this record is nearly as good as that one -- that comes down to a lapse in songs and poetry, more than anything. Simon's sessions had no faltering, tentative moments like "A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes" or anything so gleefully on-the-nose as the heroin verse on "The Butcher" ("it did some good / it did some harm" does kind of sum it all up, though). What Songs from a Room does have in spades is honesty, an unsophisticated nakedness that may incorporate more from Cohen's own life than any of his other records.

Cohen's world here feels boxed-in, almost hopeless; the record of two years prior suggested a sense of journey and wanderlust, but the very title of Songs from a Room implies a claustrophobia maintained by the stark, plain artwork, with lines like "I choose the rooms I live in with care / the windows are small and the walls almost bare" almost certainly coming from the barbed, sometimes slightly humorous perspective of a deeply depressed person. Nowhere is Cohen's state of mind clearer than on "Seems So Long Go, Nancy," a fiercely unsentimental tribute to a friend of his who had committed suicide. He both holds her at a distance and sees himself in her. Much more than latter romantic ballads of death like "Chelsea Hotel," this cut removes any distance between the singer and his subject -- he might be the desperate friend on the phone crying out that he loves Nancy, but he is also the wizened, weakened troubador who knows such platitudes can finally make little difference.

"Nancy" is one of Cohen's most shocking songs because it's one of his most direct, and is therefore the ideal match to Johnston's efforts to emphasize the elegant, quite raw simplicity of these arrangements. Elsewhere, Cohen offers up songs that could just as easily have found their home on Songs of Leonard Cohen -- equally good, but perhaps less suited to Johnston's sound than to Simon's. These are songs of God and love and war, all of the loftiest images floating through Cohen's head. "The Partisan," the beautiful anthem of the French resistance, is one thing -- an obvious showpiece that stands out almost rudely from the rest of this material. "The Old Revolution" is rather another, a brilliant song that would benefit from stronger and more distinctive production. The bitingly anti-war Biblical epic "Story of Isaac" is one of the scattered Cohen songs that is generally better in cover versions, less because of flaws in his performance than in the flat, hollow sound of the record itself.

"Isaac" is a deservedly celebrated example of Cohen's poetic mastery, though, and it's likely the second most famous selection here aside from "Bird on the Wire," a startling opener that has remained in some quarters Cohen's signature song, eclipsing even "Suzanne" and the later "Hallelujah." "Wire" is the quickest example to cite when making the case that this LP is Cohen at his most personal and unfettered. It opens as arm's-length philosophy ("I have tried in my way to be free") and gradually reveals that it's an act of atonement, making much of flaws that the singer-writer seems to feel can never be truly be forgiven: his freedom comes at a cost -- that he will inevitably be unkind, untrue. This is finally wrapped up in Cohen's anxieties about God himself and the often miserable world around him; on "You Know Who I Am," he takes for the first time a higher-up, omniscient perspective that would become increasingly important to his work in the years to follow, here within commentary upon sin and the punishment of women, sex and abortion taking on the mystical dread of heroin earlier on the record. It's a startling piece of work that calls ahead to Songs of Love and Hate -- convincingly scary, convincingly broken.

But Cohen is at his best here when he suggests something that can be heard almost nowhere else in his catalog: resignation, to grief and loss and aging. The wistful, fatalistically smiling voice on the last two songs frankly mean far more to me than "Bird on the Wire" ever really could. "Lady Midnight" features one of Cohen's most delicate and perfect lyrics (right from its economical, stirringly graceful opening couplet: "I came by myself to a very crowded place / I was looking for someone who had lines in her face"), of accepting need and lamenting a disconnect as he wanders among the cougars at a bar late at night and finds that even the one he most desires cannot and will not simply bend to his whims until he truly opens up without hesitation. The optimism here to be found in one of Cohen's sprightliest chord structures and most lovingly simple guitar performances is shattered both by its cutting humor and self-deprecation and by the heart-opening sadness of the finale.

"Tonight Will Be Fine" is identifiably the work of a young man; his voice is still witheringly thin, and his sexual politics are still those of a person who not long earlier had penned a novel, Beautiful Losers, that mostly consisted of finding about a thousand different ways of describing oral sex. But the song is honest, wounded, vulnerable and finally about as haunting as anything he's ever committed to tape. As on "Lady Midnight," the words feature not a single wasted word, and capture the lingering passion and heated regret of a collapsing relationship in its waning nights. It's a comfort to anyone who's rubbed up against the noted emotions not because it's cathartic or optimistic but because it simultaneously giggles in the face of its own despair and revels comfortably within it -- indeed, it details an almost crushing loneliness.

At the end of it all, Songs from a Room captures an extended feeling of melancholy that is unbroken for the duration. Even the bravura interlude "The Partisan" offers little respite from the deathliness and dread. But at the close of Side Two, Cohen reveals that he is most in his element when detailing not mythology or religious anxiety or even confessional regret but just the pratfalls and lonely solitude of romantic failure. At even its most optimistic, "Tonight Will Be Fine" must sarcastically undercut itself: "tonight will be fine," but only "for a while." The song lowers all of the flags and admits defeat -- he sees that he has caused his lady's grief, that he is lucky her step will appear on his stair one more time, that she has not forgiven him but is willing to be with him for one last night, that he must enjoy these final touches -- and yet somehow Cohen finds glory in hitting rock bottom. For one of the few times in his entire career, he falls hard enough for his melody that he spends the entire last minute sitting and humming it, as if he has attained some sort of nirvana in acknowledging this grief. He would attain such considerable heights from now onward and this is probably in the next-to-bottom tier of his discography, but this may perversely be his most triumphant moment. I know it's one I can never help but sing along to.

Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Dear Heather (2004)
Old Ideas (2012)

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