Leonard Cohen’s debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen
is special for a variety of reasons. First, it began the career of one of pop music’s most enigmatic and enduring figures. Despite the fact that Cohen cannot sing in any manner related to words like melodious or harmonious, his unique brand of melancholia has not only been embraced, but has had an indelible impact on folk and other pop genres. Cohen has inspired and infected; his dark, depressing id manifests itself though artists as diverse as The Jesus Mary Chain, Johnny Cash, Pixies, Nina Simone, REM, Joan Baez, and of course, Jeff Buckley.
But an album can’t inspire without substance, which is what truly makes Songs of Leonard Cohen
, which is Cohen’s debut album, is intensely personal and to a degree, taboo. While we might take angst, paranoia and depression for granted in post-sixties-peace-and-love pop music, the style Songs
traverses was but a microcosm of what it is now. Heart-rending lyricism and aural gloom have always had a place in music but Leonard Cohen defined his career via those traits in a time when it wasn’t quite fashionable (nor lucrative) to do so. And he really did it quite well.
opens with the Cohen classic, “Suzanne." “Suzanne is just about as oft-covered as the Various Positions
track, “Hallelujah," and is very much exemplary of the signature Cohen sound. A lyricist above all things, Cohen delivers with some of the most enveloping poetry set to music in the history of the art, really. His style is at once narrative, philosophical, witty, provocative and always graceful. Just as graceful is his delicate finger picking, which is vaguely flamenco-derived but not far from the style utilized by any other reputable folk artist. “Suzanne," like many Cohen songs, is also accented with by female backup vocals which extend the fragility of the song to the nth degree.
“Master Song" doesn’t change the mood at all. Despite the nearly overwhelming drear of Cohen’s work, his lyrics are rarely violently joyless. Nonetheless, the impact at which they hit couldn’t be any more dispiriting if they were suicide notes. “Master Song" is another delicate folk affair, Cohen’s monotone relating a complex story that’s not all that depressing to read alone. However, when Cohen says it (like I said, he doesn’t really sing perse), it’s drastic and dramatic, a painful tale. Cohen’s guitar is compelled forward with strings, a nearly inaudible bass and sporadic horns.
Following “Master Song" is “Winter Lady," a brief but enjoyable track that has some nice interplay on the acoustics. It waltzes along gently, the guitars caressed by a minimal wind and piano accompaniment. Like many Cohen songs, “Winter Lady" echoes themes of loneliness and desire. Not wholly remarkable but lovely in any case.
“Winter Lady" segues into the wonderful, “The Stranger Song." Musically, “The Stranger Song" makes no effort to transform the theme. Cohen’s plucking is the sound of a subdued cascade of water and is unmolested by anything except Cohen’s deep intone, which opens with the verse:
“It’s true that all the men you knew were dealers
Who said they were through with dealing
Every time you gave them shelter
I know that kind of man
It’s hard to hold the hand of anyone
Who is reaching for the sky just to surrender"
You’d be hard-pressed to find many lyricists who are as complex as Cohen. It’s just as tough to find anyone who can be considered his equal. Of course, Cohen was first an author, second, a musician. Already a published and respected novelist and poet by the time of Songs
, Cohen was in his mid-thirties, yet the raw, sometimes ambiguous poetry ended up hugely attractive to the college crowd.
A good number of tunes on Songs
feature a waltzing lilt such as the aforementioned, “Master Song" and “Winter Lady." “Sisters of Mercy" and “Stories of the Street" both glow in triple time, the former being a kind of appreciative look at the one night stand, the latter, a depressing but jaunty piece that is quite complex lyrically. It’s the kind of thing that literary courses could dissect, a very dense and remote style that appears with some level of frequency in Cohen’s library. Each verse seems to tell a different story, the final one:
“With one hand on a hexagram
And one hand on a girl
I balance on a wishing well
That all men call the world
We are so small between the stars
So large against the sky
And lost among the subway crowds
I try to catch your eye"
“Stories of the Street" is much more dynamic that most other songs on Songs of Leonard Cohen
, filled with instrumentation but no drums. Only two songs on Songs
contain drums, “So Long, Marianne" and “Teachers," and even on those, the percussion is very subtle. “So Long, Marianne" is definitely one of the stand out tracks on the album, simply because it’s quite upbeat. While it doesn’t abandon Cohen’s despair (it actually revels in it lyrically) the noticeable bass parts and the fairly exuberant chorus instill the song with a small dose of energy. It’s nice to break out of the monotony on at least one track.
However, the sense of monotony is Cohen’s strength, a strength that he uses effectively. Somehow he can convey the sameness with a human beauty, like on “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye" or “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong." “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong" is the album closer and one of the better melancholy numbers on the album. It’s a bizarre mix of longing and levity. The quiet valse of Cohen’s guitar twangs soothingly as Cohen throws out playful barbs:
“I heard of a saint who had loved you
So I studied all night in his school
He taught that the duty of lovers
Is to tarnish the golden rule
And just when I was sure that his teachings were pure
He drowned himself in the pool
His body is gone, but back here on the lawn
His spirit continues to drool"
The song ends with Cohen whistling and then a bit of vocalization which reveals why Cohen doesn’t sing.
Songs of Leonard Cohen
is a perfect mood album. Absolutely perfect. However, take heed of that statement. Songs
soars with Cohen’s poetic touch of humanity. It’s frail and naked, parched and starving, pallid and delicate. Expect nothing less and very little more.