Monday, April 1, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1245: Leonard Cohen

Happy Monday! Over the weekend I bought a few more CDs – this time all artists I already knew. I got the latest offerings from Hayes Carll, Steve Earle, Patty Griffin and Jenny Lewis. I’ve only listened to each of them once but so far, so good. The Hayes Carll and Jenny Lewis were the early standouts, but I’ll reserve final judgment for when I roll them.

From albums I’ve just met to an album I’ve owned a very long time…

Disc 1245 is… I’m Your Man
Artist: Leonard Cohen

Year of Release: 1988

What’s up with the Cover? Cohen stands stoically, while he eats a banana. It is not easy to look stoic while eating a banana, but if anyone can do it, it would be Leonard Cohen.

How I Came to Know It: This is the Leonard Cohen album I’ve known the longest. I used to own this on cassette I’ve had it so long.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 13 of Leonard Cohen’s 14 studio albums. Of those 13, I had fond memories of “I’m Your Man” so fond, I reserved the fifth spot for it. However, now that I’ve arrived, I find it cannot beat out “Recent Songs” and as a result, tumbles down one spot to sixth. The sixth best Leonard Cohen album is still pretty great, though.

Ratings:  4 stars

In my late teens, when I was finally ready to start listening to something other than heavy metal again, Leonard Cohen was waiting for me. I was very young but was quickly drawn into “I’m Your Man”, a thoughtful powerful record that explores love, loss and art from the perspective of a man firmly in middle age and fearlessly exploring the experience.

Cohen has never been a gifted singer, and by this point his voice is a gravelly mess, but he knows well enough to write songs that fit within his range and he has a spoken word poet’s innate gift for phrasing. He’s also a master poet, so masterful that all that gravel doesn’t distract, it just adds gravitas.

Cohen had toyed a little with more lush production on a couple of tracks when he released “Various Positions” in 1984, but four years later he goes all-in. “I’m Your Man” has a jazz-pop sensibility in its arrangements that belies the profound thoughts that populate these songs. The effect gave him a worldwide commercial success he hadn’t enjoyed in over twenty years. When I first heard it I waded through all that saturation and eagerly devoured his message. The production bugs me a little more a few hundred listens later.

One thing that did work was his heavy use of backup singers. The addition of all those talented women gave Cohen a new range of sound. He could lay down his intricate poetic metaphors and then the ladies could kick in on the chorus and catch the attention of all those fools who had only been half listening to that point.

Ain’t No Cure For Love” is a love song to love itself; a song for your heart to go all aflutter as Cohen croons and seduces with lines like:

“I see you in the subway, and I see you on the bus
I see you lying down with me. I see you waking up.
I see your hand, I see your hair, your bracelets and your brush
And I call to you, I call to you, but I don’t call soft enough.”

Damn, that is some sexy longing right there and now a bit older and wiser, Cohen knows (as he sings on the title track) you gotta be a little subtle in love sometimes because,

“A man never got a woman back not by begging on his knees
Or I’d crawl to you baby and I’d fall at your feet
And I’d howl at your beauty like a dog in heat.”

So instead, he calls softly. Not softly enough to win the object of his affection perhaps, but plenty soft enough to win the listener’s.

It’s not all roses and moonlight walks, however. “Everybody Knows” is not a young rebellious song bemoaning that bad things happen, but rather that world-weary feeling of having known that truth for some time. Class inequity, racial inequity, sexual infidelity and plagues come together in an apocalyptic gumbo. It is a song that would have fit well on his dystopic 1992 release, “The Future” where it wouldn’t have suffered so much from the fuzzy production that dominated the late eighties.

Sometimes Cohen makes the production work for him, such as the exquisite saxophone that launches “Ain’t No Cure for Love” and even the synthesizer beat on “First We Take Manhattan” works because it suits the vacuous high-fashion world it is condemning.

However, there is no redeeming “Jazz Police,” where all the eighties pop-jazz crossover atrocities of the age are on full display. Drum machines compete with bad hand claps and a melody that is hard to follow, let alone love.  Not even Cohen’s lyrics can save this one, and lines like “guys like me are mad for turtle meat” don’t help the cause.

The best song is the last one. “Tower of Song” is the self-indulgent voice of an artist singing of the sacrifices he makes for his work, If you’ve never made such sacrifices but yearn to know how it feels to live the life of an artist, then reflect on the late-summer of life wisdom that is “Tower of Song.” Here Cohen’s soul speaks to you, confessing all those sacrifices made to the written word, then wrapped up in the care of middle age. Or as Cohen sings it:

“Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play.”

You don’t need to go through all the divorces, liver damage and hikes up and down Mt. Baldy, because Cohen can let you live the trouble life of the artist by proxy– or at least an approximation. Such is the power of art.

I know I should speak with reverence when discussing one of history’s great poets. Generally I do, and I have plenty of reverence for this album. It has spiritually guided me through innumerable triumphs and tragedies over the past three decades. Then again, Cohen is also brandishing a banana at me on the cover, and I think it is his way of trying to keep some pretty weighty topics on the light side.

Best tracks: Ain’t No Cure For Love, Everybody Knows, I’m Your Man, Take This Waltz, Tower of Song

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