Tuesday, June 18, 2013

CD Odyssey Disc 522: Leonard Cohen

I’m having a busy day, and juggling a lot of things.  Spent the day writing in front of a computer screen but then raced home to write this review before the hockey game.

Then the hockey game (a Bruins victory – huzzah!) Then over to a friend’s house and I’m just now back to post the review I finished earlier.  Once this is done, I’m going to bed.  Phew!

On to the review – it is hard to believe it is three years to the day since my last album by this artist.  Far too long to wait!

Disc 522 is…. Songs of Leonard Cohen (or just “Songs”)
Artist: Leonard Cohen

Year of Release: 1967

What’s up with the Cover?  The Big Head Shot.  Leonard looks a little bit like Michael Corleone in the Godfather here.  Also interesting is the back cover, which has a chained woman burning in flames.  Here it is:

It makes me think of his song, "Joan of Arc" although that song does not appear on this album.  Note the creepy skull in the flames under her upraised arm as well.
How I Came To Know It:  I knew Leonard Cohen’s poetry before his music, and with “Songs of Leonard Cohen” being his first album, it has a lot of his original poetry set to music.  It was therefore an easy sell for me.  I used to own this on tape in the eighties but have long since upgraded to CD.

How It Stacks Up:  I have eleven of Leonard Cohen’s studio albums.  There are few musicians, living or dead that can match his consistent excellence, so competition is fierce.  I rate it second or third, depending on how I feel about “Songs From a Room.”  “Songs of Leonard Cohen” has a bit better production and superior poetry, but I like the overall feel of “Songs From a Room” and the musicality of it, so it is essentially a draw.

And yes, the man likes to put the word “songs” in his album titles.

Rating:  5 stars

Having read most of these poems before ever hearing them set to music, “Songs of Leonard Cohen” was a revelation for me when I first heard it around 1988. 

This is Cohen’s debut album, and it is an exceptional collection of songs and poetry.  Here the talent of one of Canada’s greatest poets not only reimagined his work into songs, but enhanced them as a result of that transformation.  It inspired me to the point where I began planning my graduate thesis on how music influences poetry and vice versa.  They never let me into grad school, so that project didn’t get off the ground.  Their loss.

The album launches with one of folk music’s most iconic songs, “Suzanne.”  A beautiful love song of the underclass combined with a pining devotional that tries to explain why we feel listless and drifting as we seek one another in this crazy world:

“And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said, ‘All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them.’”

I wish I could come up with just two of these lines that drip off Cohen’s tongue with an assonant longing that approaches prayer.

The entire album is filled with this high quality poetry, which draws you in and puts your mind in a state of quiet alertness, almost meditative, as he explores love and loss in all its forms.

Some of these romances are hopeful, like “Suzanne” and “Sisters of Mercy” but the majority explore the broken places that exist between people.  Once great relationships are collapsed by time and distance in “That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” or simply by an atrophy that grows within them like “So Long, Marianne.” This particular theme reaches its zenith (nadir?) with the album’s closing track, the vicious and venomous “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” which begins:

“I lit a thin green candle
To make you jealous of me
But the room just filled up with mosquitos
They heard that my body was free
Then I took the dust of a long sleepless night
And I put it in your little shoe
Then I confess that I tortured the dress
That you wore for the world to look through.”

You have to hand it to Cohen – even when he’s angry he still willingly paints himself as much the villain as the object of his disdain.  He’s like a self-deprecating Bob Dylan (and just as talented).

There is a plethora of great images strewn threw the songs I’ve already mentioned and all the other ones as well, some of my favourite snippets include:

“It’s hard to hold the hand of anyone
Who is reaching for the sky just to surrender.” (The Stranger Song)

“We met when we were almost young
Deep in the green lilac park
You held onto me like I was a crucifix
As we went kneeling through the dark.” (So Long, Marianne)

“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.” (Sisters of Mercy).

Sisters of Mercy” is one of those perfect songs, yet Cohen has said it is also the only song he effortlessly wrote in the space of a few hours (I’ve read that it is inspired by two girls he met on the road in Saskatchewan and let sleep – and nothing else – in his hotel room for the night).  I can’t remember the source for that story, however; either he said it at a concert live or I read it and have since forgotten where.

Overall the production is sparse but perfect.  The guitar work is a mix of basic folk strumming and heavily classical melodies and playing.  It is early in his career, and Cohen’s voice is still high and plaintive (later on, after decades of red wine and late nights it drops an octave, and gets gravelly and slightly lascivious).  On these early records it is mostly just Cohen but occasionally backup singer are used, notably on the chorus of a few songs.

While ultimately not enough to ensure my place in graduate school, I’m sure this record has helped ensure the romantic evenings of many undergraduates went smoothly over the years.  I can’t remember specifically if I’ve ever tried it myself but the odds are good that I did.

For writing such perfectly blended confessional/devotional songs about love, that resonate not only in the late sixties heyday of such work, but equally well forty-five years later; for still being able to make me catch my breath with the beauty of his imagery and for doing it all in a tasteful 10 songs, and 40 minutes, this album easily makes the five star grade.

Best tracks:  most of them.  Of ten songs the only two that are a bit weak are “Winter Lady” and “Stories of the Street” and those aren’t enough to knock this album out of five star territory.

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