Leonard Cohen, Canada's most influential poet-turned-novelist-turned-singer songwriter, is arguably the greatest lyricist of all time - a bold statement, I know, but one I am willing to defend to death (yes, much better than Dylan). Cohen is undoubtably the poet laureate of melancholia. Bearing this in mind, I say with no hesitation that Cohen's third offering - 1971's 'Songs of Love and Hate' - is, lyrically, Cohen's greatest album. The album also spawned two fan favourites; "Famous Blue Raincoat", and "Joan Of Arc".
If we take that a concept album is an umbrella term reffering not only to albums whose tracks tell a story, but an album whose songs are all thematically linked, then this album is definately a concept album - all the songs have the same themes, as unimaginatevly expressed in the title; all songs are about love and hate; either about love, or hate, or more often, hate resulting from love.
The album is in almost every way sparse to the nth degree; there are only 8 tracks on the album, two down from his previous albums, the production is even MORE minimal than in 'Songs of Leonard Cohen' and 'Songs from a Room', and even the cover of the album is plain; black, with the artist's name and album title in white lettering, and a simple picture of Cohen in the corner. The back cover of the original vinyl cover didn't even have the tracklist!
Why, one my ask, is this album so bare in almost every aspect? The answer lies with the one element that is extremely complex and multi-layered: the lyrics. As with all Cohen's work, the lyrics are the focal point of each and every song, and as the lyrics are of such virtuosity on this record, Cohen's production is cut down even more; most songs on this album feature only Cohen's voice, a guitar, some basic string accompaniement and the odd children's choir.
The sparse production has an immensely enhancing effect on the album's opener, "Avalanche". This track has, quite possibly, Cohen's greatest vocal peformance (Cohen is known for his inability to hold a tune). The lyrics are dark and melancholy, and reflect the subject matter of loneliness and lost love perfectly. Most of the verses are only Cohen's voice, and and an unobtrusive guitar accompaniament. Strings fade in and out, in sweeping crescendos and suddenly fading; in some of the verses, the strings provide a powerful, dynamic bass line that adds strength to the raw emotion Cohen radiates on this song.
"Avalance" is a perfect microcosm for a majority of the songs on this album; the dark, haunting undertones found in "Avalanche" are sustained trough to the next track, "Last Year's Man", as well as "Dress Rehearsal Rag", "Love Calls You By Your Name" and "Famous Blue Raincoat", although in each case the themes are applied differently, have different resonances, and hence no two songs are similar to any great degree (except arguably the album opener and "Love Calls You By Your Name").
Leonard Cohen often has a repuation for being extremely depressing; a view that I personally find is unjust, but he has a reputation for being so, regardless. However, even I can see how the label was applied when referring to "Last Year's Man" and "Dress Rehearsal Rag". The two songs are similar, as they both contain the same emotions as each other (as described above), but their approach is different, and yet they both achieve the same effect; and the effect of these two songs are unlike any other on the album.
"Last Year's Man" uses the chord sequence to great effect. The major chords are immediately countered with the minor chords in such away that it leads the listener on an emotional rollercoaster; the major chords are placed in the sequence in a way that lifts the soul, whereas the minor chords brings it crashing back down; and the fact that soul was lifted just seconds previously makes the crash all the more bitter. The lyrics are depressing in nature; it talks about failure, and desperation amounting to nothing. It is very hard not to be moved at some core point of the soul by this song (as long as you pay attention to the lyrics), and the chords echo the lyrics to tremendous effect. This song really does leave the listener very low.
Cohen takes this, and runs with it; "Dress Rehearsal Rag" is a song that is about the suicide of a man who has led a life like a train wreck; he lives in a crummy apartment, and his love has gone and left him. This song is all minor chords (bar a single major chord at the end of each verse, a very discerning effect), and hence sounds bitter throughout. Cohen makes use of some wonderful imagery here; the lathered-up protaganist of the song (currently shaving) is reffered to as 'Santa Claus', and the idea of the jolly ol' St Nick staring at the veins in wrist whilst fingering a razor is ironic, to say the least.
Both "Dress Rehearsal Rag" makes use of a child's choir to back Cohen on key phrases; this adds to the crushing nature of the songs, and on these two songs, I must concede, Cohen can be considered 'depressing'.
Not wanting to drive the listner to suicide, Cohen chucks in some light relief with "Diamonds in the Mine". Whilst this song is one that falls under the 'hate' category, thematically, the lyrics are tongue in cheek. This song is quite jolly in it's tone, achieved by ridiculously over-the-top vocals from Cohen, it's major key, the whiny guitar line and that it is the shortest song on the album (the only one that doesn't fall near the 5+ minutes mark, beind just under 4 minutes).
Do signal the second half of the album, "Love Calls You By Your Name" is a song that is a very close parallel to the first track, "Avalanche"; this track is very much a major equivalent of the album opener, and the song is about the positive longing of loved ones, such as remembering the love and cherishment from past relationships. Cohen's not-too-great vocals really let down the song, and the lyrics are somewhat too repetative for my liking. This is for me the only song that is a 'miss' rather than a 'hit' on this album, and is certainly the least-good song on the album.
"Famous Blue Raincoat" is the first of two fan favourites from the album, and was the only track from this album to be featured on "The Essential Leonard Cohen", which Cohen picked himself (a crime in my opinion - how can there be no Joan of Arc? Ah well). This song takes form of a letter, from Leonard Cohen to a nameless man, who (it seems) tried to take Cohen's woman, by the name of Jane. The song is somewhat narrative, but at the same time is somewhat surreal. However, the song is fantastic, the lyrics are powerful and steeped in emotion, and is deservedly a fan favourite.
The last two songs on the album are different to the others on the album; the first, "Sing Another Song, Boys", is also a narrative, to some extent. Cohen takes on the guise of a singer narrating a story about a doomed couple. As the love of the relationship finally goes, Cohen sings 'Lets sing another song, boys, this one's grown old and bitter". The track, however, starts with the same phrase, spoken by Cohen. From this, one can infer that the relationship is not the first to be doomed (a previous song has grwon old and bitter, prompting Cohen to sing this track), and one can safely assume the relationship is not the last to be so. It takes an overall pessimistic view of 'love', as people misunderstand it to be, but is in the guise of a song not as pessimistic as the subtext suggests it really is.
"Joan of Arc" is easily the best song on the album, and, dare I say it, the finest set of lyrics Cohen has ever penned (if you've never heard this song, search for the lyrics. You'd swear it was a poem). Cohen retells the story of Joan of Arcady's demise as a love affair between Joan and fire. The song mostly takes on the form of a conversation between Joan and the fire, though Cohen narrates here and there. The song finishes with the greatest closing verse of any album ever: "I saw her wince, I saw her cry, I saw the glory in her eye. Myself, I long for love and light, but must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?"
'Songs of Love and Hate' is NOT a great starting point for someone to get into Cohen. Someone who does so may easily come away with the impression that he really is as depressing as people say. This is NOT true. Start with 'Songs of Leonard Cohen', get a feel for the general tone of his work first; for this album is a bleak, melancholy record, and one that taints the soul of all who listen to it with remorse and sorrow. But if you are not afraid of dangling over the edge of the metaphorical pit in your soul, then grab 'Songs of Love and Hate' with both hands, and let yourself swim in Cohen's sea of melancholia.
But think on this; 'Songs of Love and Hate' is not music.
It is not poetry.
It is art of the highest order.
Essential for all who do not exist in a sheltered bubble of optimism.
- Gur Samuel