Saturday, July 6, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1277: Leonard Cohen

I’ve been out on the town the last two nights and it has delayed my review. This suits me just fine, because this is a record I don’t put on often enough, and I relished the extra time with it.

Disc 1277 is… Death of a Ladies’ Man
Artist: Leonard Cohen

Year of Release: 1977

What’s up with the Cover? According to the liner notes this picture was taken by “an anonymous roving photographer at a forgotten Polynesian restaurant” On the left is Eva LaPierre (who I don’t know) and Suzanne, the subject of the famous Cohen song of the same name.

How I Came to Know It: I’ve known Leonard Cohen since high school, and this is one of the first albums I purchased when I got my first CD player. I knew some of these songs as poems and was eager to hear them put to music.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 13 of Leonard Cohen’s studio albums and 1 live record as well. Of the 13, I had reserved last place for “Death of a Ladies’ Man” but I ended up liking the record too much. Instead I’ll put it in at #11. This generates a bit of shuffling in the ranking, and since this is my last Cohen review here is the full accounting:

  1. Various Positions: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 58)
  2. Songs from a Room: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 536)
  3. Songs: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 522)
  4. The Future: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 895)
  5. Recent Songs: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 120)
  6. I’m Your Man: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 1245)
  7. New Skin for the Old Ceremony: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 139)
  8. Songs of Love and Hate: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 7)
  9. You Want It Darker: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 937)
  10. Popular Problems: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 847)
  11. Death of a Ladies’ Man: 3 stars (reviewed right here)
  12. Old Ideas: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 898)
  13. Ten New Songs: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1094)
Three five-star albums is an almost impossible achievement, but listen to the records before you tell me I’m wrong.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

“Death of a Ladies’ Man” could have easily been a bloated directionless mess, but Cohen’s talents as a poet and songwriter win through the record’s excess and achieves a strange and unexpected brilliance.

I divide Cohen’s music into two periods. Early Cohen sings quiet introspective songs in a high airy voice. Later Cohen’s vocals become deep and gravelly, and he starts to add in a lot of back up singers and lush production.

“Death of a Ladies’ Man” straddles the border of these two lands. Cohen’s vocals are light, but the production is filled with all kinds of complicated arrangements. These sometimes reminded me of big band swing and sometimes felt like a lot of barroom winos sawing away at a table in the corner. The whole thing has a drunken sway that is, admittedly, an acquired taste.

It doesn’t help that the record has some singularly bad production. On many songs, it sounds like Cohen is singing over the telephone on a bad connection. On the title track there is even a line where he inexplicably fades out, like he is crooking the phone on his shoulder, maybe while he finds a pen or makes a sandwich or something.

It would be hard for most to overcome this to get past this, but Cohen does so and then some. Because despite all the oddness, Cohen is one of the greatest poets in the history of the English language. The world was lucky when he took those poems to the world of music, growing his audience and demonstrating a talent for smithing a tune as well.

This record has a lot of focus on relationships, most of which are not going well. However, the songs have a manic quality, with Cohen infusing the tragedy with his wry sense of humour and a devil-may-care attitude.

On “Paper Thin Hotel” the narrator listens to his lover enjoy a tryst with another man in the room next to him. Faced with the potential to rage with jealousy, Cohen instead recognizes the absurdity of it all:

“The walls of this hotel are paper-thin
Last night I heard you making love to him
The struggle mouth to mouth and limb to limb
The grunt of unity when he came in
I stood there with my ear against the wall
I was not seized by jealousy at all
In fact a burden lifted from my soul
I heard that love was out of my control”

Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On” provides some good advice for any drunk coming at an unwelcome hour. The song is filled with horn flourishes and a jubilant quality that captures the stagger of the horny idiot in question.

Memories” isn’t my favourite track, but I love this one couplet:

“I walked up to the tallest and the blondest girl
I said ‘look, you don’t know me now, but very soon you will.”

Ballsy stuff, but Cohen was a ballsy guy.

Cohen dabbles in country music as well, throwing a bit of yeehaw fiddle into “Fingerprints” and while “Iodine” is more of a jazz number, it has more than a little mosey in the delivery.

The album ends with the title track, a haunting nine-minute dirge about a relationship’s slow collapse. The record overall may feature a fair bit of humour, but there is a darkness underneath it all, and that darkness lays bare and exposed on “Death of a Ladies’ Man.” Cohen ends the song with a cold, nihilistic vision of love:

“It's like our visit to the moon or to that other star
I guess you go for nothing if you really want to go that far.”

“Death of Ladies’ Man” is not a record for pleasant romantic notions and walks on the beach. It’s brand of beauty is of the darker and more troubling kind. It isn’t easy to access this beauty through all those layers of production, but unlike Cohen’s grim final pronouncement, it is worth the effort.

Best tracks: Paper Thin Hotel, I Left a Woman Waiting, Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On, Death of a Ladies’ Man

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