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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!

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