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27 April 2011

Leonard Cohen - 'Songs of Love and Hate' (Columbia)

When I was getting into Leonard Cohen, age 16 or so, Songs of Love and Hate seemed like the most extreme and fierce of the infallible four. The cover sets it apart - a badly contrasted photo, with Cohen looking deranged and unshaven compared to the zenlike calm on his first two records, plus the 'The fools/They locked up the wrong man' lines on the back - and the music feels even more stark and bare than Songs from a Room. Except listening now, it's not so much the case. 'Avalanche', yes, sets things off with a ferocious pallor, but it's still orchestrated with quite bold string sweeps. 'Last Year's Man' continues this with glowing violins and haunting, childlike backing vocals. So the musical sparseness was surely my own mental construct - I also saw this as sloppy and resigned to failure, maybe because the inclusion of the live track 'Sing another Song'. Now I feel some revisionism, sure, but like all Cohen records the lyrics of some tunes get more relevant with each listen. Is it all a bit of melodrama, or is this a record of pure pain? Songs of Love and Hate is not a slow record; 'Dress Rehearsal Rag' and 'Diamonds in the Mine' both have a somewhat frantic momentum, not to mention 'Avalanche's eponymous arpeggios. And the pain is probably the hate we're promised. 'Dress Rehearsal Rag' is just a downer, but 'Diamonds' is like a goofy descent into madness. Of course, is it Len's usual somber voice that makes his shrieking cackle sound extra-insane? On the flipside, 'Love Calls You By Your Name' has the same creeping malevolence as 'Avalanche' and is an underrated gem in the Cohen catalogue, in my opinion. There's not much to say about 'Famous Blue Raincoat' which I can't help but love despite 40 years of coffeehouse open mic fuckers ruining it; I've never been sure how genuine it's sentiments are - though it's probably closer to the hate side of Love and Hate, despite L. Cohen's backhanded forgiveness. 'Sing Another Song, Boys' is essentially a new lyric to 'So Long, Marianne', a bit freewheeling and adorned with a nice meandering organ part. The live recording leads to some great imperfections in the singing which I love, even if I've never quite clicked with this tune lyrically. And then, 'Joan of Arc', the epic closing tune which is almost like a restoration of the first album style. It's a story, with an out-of-sync dual vocal track which is actually my favorite thing about the song. But how can I say something is infallible and then criticise it? Thanks for cutting loose a bit, Leonard!

16 April 2011

Leonard Cohen - 'Songs from a Room' (Columbia)

OK, so I have a few Leonard Cohen LPs ahead and I don't really know how to write about them. (What a copout vibe these pages have been taking lately!). Of course this stuff is timeless and there's nothing I can add to it. This one isn't my absolute favorite but it's still beyond criticism. I don't have the first LP for some reason but this is the same exact formula, except with a jew's harp added. All I can really talk about is moments I had in my own life with it; this particular LP, this copy even, I grabbed secondhand when I was 16 or 17 and I remember listening to it with a girlfriend (or whatever passes for a girlfriend at that age) and somehow 'Story of Isaac' set the mood for, well, y'know. And for all the acclaim of that song, it's greatest element to me is how sparse it is - a stumbling bassline, the barest accents of guitar parts (usually just two or three repeated notes) and the barely audible but ever present jew's harp. As stern as Len's final warning is, it holds back from grandiose drama; that's saved for 'A Bunch of Quarrelsome Heroes', with frantically strummed chords and a soaring voice. He sings it for the crickets and the army, though. It's silly to even say these songs are retreads of the first record because this is a poet who embraced songwriting afterall, and I already said this was beyond criticism. 'The Partisan' inaugurates the great tradition of military imagery in Cohen songs, and I love this one. It's not for the chilling, female-backed French chorus, but for the rapid yet light fingerpicking, the song again driven by a few bass notes. There's an intensity that somehow is convincing enough that I've always accepted this Montreal poet singing as if he's actually in a war - and it's a cover version. Now Songs from a Room is my least favourite of the big four, by which I refer to Cohen's infallible first four albums. But despite being in fourth place this is still pretty damn solid. I love it less because of few droopy tunes that never resonated with me - 'Seems So Long Ago, Nancy', 'Lady Midnight' and I guess 'The Butcher'. What I've learned with Leonard Cohen over the years is that his music develops with me. As I age, I find new things in it and the songwriting becomes more personal and meaningful - which is the exact opposite of just about everything else I've ever listened to. This explains why I still listen to Cohen now as I did at 17, and why I don't listen the Smoking Popes anymore. So I'm sure in ten more years 'Lady Midnight' will make a boatload of sense to me, the same way that 17-year-old me dismissed Death of a Lady's Man and the 30 year old me fell in love with it.