Review Summary: haggard and gaunt, strumming away deliberately like it’ll somehow revive his unrelenting sickness if he only musters up enough passion...
Having heard it or not, chances are you know well that Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate
is held in high regards. Artists from Nick Cave to Kurt Cobain cite Cohen’s gloomy, stark folk as a major factor in their own work, and the Canadian’s influence is pretty palpable in many of the past decade’s most prolific singer-songwriters. Personally, I was introduced to Cohen through his poetry, for which he is likely better-known for, not his music. His poem “Story of Isaac” and its dual-portrayal of of both war and Cohen’s adamantly strict religious upbringing still astounds me now as much as it did a few years ago upon discovery. So, when I heard the likes of “Joan of Arc” and “Avalanche,” I was at once in awe at his lyrical virtuosity, but admittedly unsurprised. Twisting metaphors and maze-like wordplay run rampant throughout Songs of Love and Hate,
and Cohen is wide-known as one of the best songwriters to grace the century for ample reason. Given these glowing memories and high expectations of my own, it was other aspects that make Leonard Cohen’s Songs
so astounding upon revisiting the album after
fully absorbing all the singer-songwriter children that were born from Cohen’s desolate, seminal album.
Cohen, on nearly every record, sounds disoriented and depressed, utterly disenchanted. Songs of Love and Hate
, as the title seems to cue, takes this element to new, even uncharacteristic, levels for Cohen. The semblances of coherence on his other records, even if they were
coherently depressive, seem to have vanished on Songs, reflecting this particularly tumultuous personal period in Cohen’s life. This quality --whether the aftereffects are positive or negative-- become Songs’
most outstanding feature. Cohen’s musky voice is uncomfortable throughout, but reaches new strained heights on “Diamonds In The Mine.” The slinky finger-picking certainly creates a mood, which works stunningly on Cohen’s masterpiece, “Avalanche,” but the frail Canadian poet sounds near to crumbling under the heavy weight of his own music. Listening to Songs of Love and Hate
, I can picture Cohen, haggard and gaunt, but strumming away deliberately like it’ll some
how revive his unrelenting sickness if he only musters up enough passion.
I’ve heard praise for Cohen’s songwriting to no end, but it’s painful reading criticisms like “Cohen’s best when his songs are being sung by someone else.” This compromise of Cohen’s artistry is somewhat understandable, as Cohen’s vocals, especially on Songs,
are particularly abrasive. Instead of building momentum, he lets the space in-between utterances build a drafty ambience. It’s not the most endearing technique, but it is effective. The weighty emotional content means Cohen loses some precision, this much is evident. Though, the heavy atmosphere lays like a dense fog over the entirety, enveloping Songs of Love and Hate
in onerous passion. In short, it’s unexpectedly heavy.
I find Songs of Love and Hate
particularly meaningful though, years later after first hearing it. Learning to enjoy the complexities of Leonard Cohen’s stark emotional soundscapes was a difficult task, but revisiting the record after listening to his singer-songwriter predecessors that had also
been so deeply moved by Cohen makes the experience all the more gratifying. His artistic career spanned an illustrious five decades, but not one recording catches him at such a threadbare, painfully-sincere epoch in his life. Songs of Love and Hate
is Leonard Cohen stripped-down and thin. As sparse as Cohen’s home country, and as desolate and melancholic as it may be, the seminal folk album makes its footprint so deep not by striving for perfection, or even beauty for that matter, but by stripping away all elegance and grace, leaving us with one of the most sincere forms of heaviness to have graced my headphones.