Listening #81 Page 3

Critics agreed: At the time of its release in 1974, New Skin for the Old Ceremony was hailed as Leonard Cohen's best to date: gratifying, I suppose, in light of the very mixed reception accorded his first four albums. (To see what America's leading counterculture mag had to say about Songs of Leonard Cohen, for example, plug "Leonard Cohen," "Rolling Stone," and "flaming shits" into the search engine of your choice.) That in itself is a bit of a shock, given Cohen's current status as a critics' favorite, but I suppose his fondness for the imagery of war in general and his own occasional bouts of Poundian macho posing—he suggested in one early interview that he was a foot soldier in the Cuban revolution, and observed in another that "War is wonderful: they'll never stamp it out"—didn't endear him to the folk-music writers of the 1960s.

Nor did New Skin or anything else from Cohen's early catalog ever sell terribly well in the US (footnote 4), making Sundazed's reissue project all the more welcome. Granted, Sony Music offered CD reissues of these albums in 2007, sweetening each with a bonus cut or two. But the latter were meager—almost as insulting as when Capitol/EMI tried tarting up their CDs of the Band's Stage Fright and Cahoots by adding those albums' radio commercials—and their sound was nothing special. The Sundazed project, on the other hand, marks the first time in decades that Cohen's early albums have been available on vinyl: the playback format for serious listeners.

Bob Irwin, the president of Sundazed Music and executive producer for this series, says that "It was directly through the aid, help, and support of Legacy's head of A&R, Steve Berkowitz, that we were able to land – and present – the Leonard Cohen albums on Sundazed.

"Sony/Legacy had ongoing plans for developing and re-releasing the Cohen catalog, so we really couldn't interfere. However, the two-year wait turned out to be perfectly good timing, because the Cohen catalog – due to increased visibility, rave reviews and noteworthy press, radio play, and good old word of mouth—had clearly gained a new, younger audience who were interested in owning these marvelous records on vinyl!" Just as important, Irwin says, is that "All titles were cut from the original two-tracks, [and] all tapes were in wonderful shape: no shedding, no oxide loss, no manhandling issues. All were meticulously and continuously referenced against original Columbia 1A pressings; happily, all it took was the most modest of EQ and the slightest of compression to bring them home."

That said, I do think the new version of Songs of Leonard Cohen falls a bit short of the original: It sounds slightly less open than both my original from 1968 and my later, yellow-letter copy from the '70s. Yet on Songs from a Room, those qualities are reversed, the Sundazed reissue LP sounding notably clearer. Songs of Love and Hate, Live Songs, and New Skin for the Old Ceremony are all close, though on all three, the originals sound very slightly brighter. (Incidentally, the Sundazed versions of all but Songs from a Room are cut at slightly lower volume levels than the originals, the disparity being most obvious on the first album.) Surfaces on the reissues are all wonderfully silent.

Sundazed also gets high marks for their reproductions of the original cover art. Scans appear every bit as clear as the originals (compare that with the depressingly murky work from other reissue houses), and I was delighted that Sundazed went to the trouble to reproduce the little black book of credits that came with the original Songs of Love and Hate. (But they missed out on the black innersleeve.)

One small drawback among all the good, egalitarian consequences of art-as-merchandise is that in music, all but the most ardent consumers think not of a great corpus of work but rather of individual pieces that, taken together, comprise a soundtrack to their own lives: distinct points along the lines of their constellations-in-progress. These are the records we love, this is when we bought them.

I'm as guilty as anyone—and so it goes with regard to my fondness for Leonard Cohen's early music, especially Songs of Love and Hate, which I wouldn't care to do without: These albums are all tied intimately to some of the most interesting days of my youth, and they bring with them pleasant floods of associations. Whether you'll find as much to enjoy as I have is open to question, but Cohen's sheer depth, originality, and truthfulness should make these records more than worthy of your attention. Start with the last one, skip the live one, and work your way backward.

Footnote 4: For reasons beyond all human understanding, Songs of Love and Hate made it to No.4 on the UK charts.

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