Dismissed by a later generation as the acme of hippy gloom, Cohen’s work actually...
Tim Nelson 2007-04-26
Just what is it that makes Leonard Cohen so special, so cherished? A singer of limited range, his musical melodies and arrangements have generally been subservient to his lyrics, and it is his lyrical flair that raises the work to the level of genuine artistry. For those new to his sepulchral delight, these reissues of his first three albums provide a perfect introduction. For the long-term Cohen aficionado there’s enhanced sound quality and also, additional previously unreleased tracks, rare and unseen photographs and first-time inclusion of lyrics.
Dismissed by a later generation as the acme of hippy gloom, Cohen’s work actually offers romanticism and wry humour as much as despair. These themes shine through the first three albums, from the mix of eroticism and spirituality in songs such as “The Sisters of Mercy” to the mysticism of “The Master Son” and “Teachers”. But as well as Cohen’s masterful dissection of personal relationships, many of the songs also have a strong political dimension, particularly on the second album, where the shadow of Vietnam looms large.
Unusually, Cohen was a successful poet and novelist (his Beautiful Losers is seen as one of the quintessential 1960s novels) before he became a recording artist, which helps account for his poetic control. The first album, The Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1968), is the absolute must-have classic, and while it would be impossible to pick out one single track, the opener, “Suzanne” (also a hit for Judy Collins) is the perfect place to start, while “So Long, Marianne” is probably his most joyful track prior to 1988’s I’m Your Man. The 2007 reissue, as well as bringing out the touches of instrumental colour in songs such as “Winter Lady”, also provides two interesting bonus tracks with the Dylanesque “Store Room” and the rather charming “Blessed is the Memory”.
The other two albums offer out-takes rather than unreleased tracks, but the original work remains compelling. Songs From A Room (1969) substitutes the first album’s producer, John Simon, for Dylan’s old cohort, Bob Johnston, but keeps the sparse acoustic backing. As well as the classic alcoholic’s anthem, “Bird on a Wire”, the album combines the romantic explorations of the first album with biting political commentary in “The Story of Isaac”, “The Partisan” and others.
The third album, Songs of Love And Hate (1970) is perhaps less varied than the first two albums, but the focus is more intense and the sequencing superb. Be warned though: this is one of the scariest albums of the last forty years with Cohen offering work by turns prophetic, on “Avalanche”, and suicidal, as in “Dress Rehearsal Rag”. Other highlights include “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Joan of Arc”; an album finale that reveals a chink of light in the void.
Cherished by artists including Nick Cave, REM, Jeff Buckley and Rufus and Martha Wainwright and the subject of a recent documentary, I’m Your Man, Leonard Cohen remains a unique songwriter, and his first three albums are essential additions to any contemporary music collection. The interested listener is unlikely to tire of them any time soon.