Listening #81

For an artform in which sound is everything, popular music has been blessed with strangely little poetry: There may be no other genre where high-mindedness falls with such a thud. Leonard Cohen remains the most striking exception, not just for the genuine seriousness of his music or the adulation of his audience, but for the ability of the former to survive the latter.

Stranger still is the notion that such a musically timeless record as Cohen's debut could emerge in 1967, a year whose other great records now sound dated by comparison. Then again, Cohen was 33 years old by the time his first record was released, and had already published two successful novels and four volumes of poetry. Perhaps that's why his musical debut sounded more grounded and assured than desperate and frantic.

Whatever the reason, Songs of Leonard Cohen remains an enduringly powerful record, as its new LP incarnation from Sundazed Music reminds us (Columbia/Sundazed 9533). (Sundazed has also released Songs from a Room, Songs of Love and Hate, Live Songs, and New Skin for the Old Ceremony, all on high-definition vinyl and boasting complete, original cover art.) Perhaps uniquely among pop musicians who've claimed the title of poet, Cohen was and is the real thing, with a fine ear for language and a rich and wide-ranging palette of images: sex, suicide, infanticide, religious parables, mercenary soldiers, drug paraphernalia, and poker were les spécialités du chez from Cohen's first album onward.

The legendary producer and talent scout John Hammond signed Leonard Cohen to Columbia Records—there's no doubt that Hammond, who nurtured Bob Dylan's early career, saw much the same potential in his new charge—and in May 1967 brought him to the company's East 30th Street studios in New York. Those early sessions paired Cohen and his nylon-string guitar with instrumental backing that was, to say the least, unsympathetic: Early takes of "Suzanne"—then a much longer song, with a fourth verse that was bleaker and more wide-ranging than the first three—were marred by bongos and a cheesy electric organ, and Cohen's guitar was dispensed with altogether for an embarrassing arrangement of "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" that features drums, bass, and some truly awful, stuck-in-the-'60s electric-guitar playing (footnote 1). Cohen balked. Hammond stepped away from the project, partly for health reasons, and John Simon was brought in as producer and musical director.

Simon's production work on the finished album is brilliant. Cohen's singing—droning, detached, limited in range, borderline tuneless, but always perfectly appropriate—and his very capable guitar playing were retained as the backbone of all 10 songs. Supporting instruments, including electric bass, electric organ, a brushed snare, fiddle, celeste, glockenspiel, muted trumpets, beautifully scored strings, and an ingeniously fresh-sounding female background singer (the latter used in ironic counterpoint to some of the music's darker moments) were faded in and out, in combinations that often changed from one verse to the next. It was studio trickery at its best, and with the possible exception of "Stories of the Street"—overdubbed guitar and excess reverb only called attention to its more puerile lines—and the silly pan-potting of the instruments behind "Sisters of Mercy," Simon's work elevated every song on the album.

While Songs of Leonard Cohen doesn't sound dated in the manner of, say, Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced or Moby Grape's Moby Grape, the listening experience is still very much of an earlier time, when a pop record could be the sole focus of a listener's attention—not unlike a collection of poems—and had the power to alter both mood and point of view. It still sounds best in a darkened room, with the incense of one's choice.

Cohen's second album, Songs from a Room, was recorded with a different roster of backing musicians, in a different place (Nashville) with a different producer (the great Bob Johnston, late of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Simon and Garfunkel). Yet the mood is very much the same. The arrangements are sparser—Cohen was said to prefer the sound of just his voice and guitar, though that leads one to wonder why he took a full band on the road in 1968 for his first concert tour—and the lovely and oft-covered "Bird on the Wire" is the only song on the record with a string arrangement. On the other hand, no fewer than 7 of the 10 selections on Songs from a Room find Cohen's voice and guitar supplemented with electric bass (horribly out of tune on "Tonight Will Be Fine") and a droning Jew's harp, the latter quite grating by the end of the record.

Footnote 1: The player sounds like the perennially overrated Mike Bloomfield.

elanmonro's picture

In the late 1960s, Leonard Cohen was one of those fabled individuals of whom most serious music lovers had heard but who had not actually been much heard except through the voices of better-known singers who tirelessly promoted his songs. Over the years, Cohen became better known and has since become a cult hero in the world of those who like their music decidedly deep and decidedly dark.

Elan, Editor of Anti Aging Project