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Main Category: Singer-Songwriters
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Starting Period: The Psychedelic Years
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Year Of Release: 1967
Overall rating =

As in, you know, "SONGS of Leonard Cohen. Not POEMS. Not MUMBLED JUMBLED VERBOSE CHAOS. SONGS. SONGS."

Best song: MASTER SONG

Track listing: 1) Suzanne; 2) Master Song; 3) Winter Lady; 4) The Stranger Song; 5) Sisters Of Mercy; 6) So Long Marianne; 7) Hey That's No Way To Say Goodbye; 8) Stories Of The Street; 9) Teachers; 10) One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong.

Since Leonard Cohen is pretty much the AC/DC of famous singer-songwriting (although, like that band, he, too, occasionally had himself a bagpipe of a formula violation every now and then), everything to like, adore, hate, and despise about this guy's affair with music can already be found on his debut album. If your personal feelings hover somewhere in between "like" and "despise", then this is, quite possibly, the only Cohen album you'll ever need in your collection, although if you're a big lyrics guy, I'd probably look for more certain lyrical maturity in his next record, Songs From A Room.

Me, I happen to be more attracted to Cohen for the hypnotizing sound of his voice rather than the deep mesh of symbolism in the actual lyrics, and so for me, Songs is the freshest and henceforth the quintessential Cohen to own. The melodies are, of course, the weakest part: simplistic, almost identical, tune after tune, all of them lightly strummed on an acoustic guitar which the man could never even master on a Bob Dylan level, let alone Nick Drake. But then he never really tried, either; being a visionary, for Cohen, never implied being a musician as well. It didn't imply being a singer, either, although Songs certainly show that any complaints you occasionally hear about the man's voice are grossly overrated. Instead of singing, he goes for what I'd call 'melodic declamation', softly, silkily purring out his words the way a classic European "bard", be he French or Russian, would always do if he accepted the fact that it was a long way from out there to Shalyapin. But those few notes that he does 'sing', in a way, he sings decently, without getting out of tune; he knows his limitations and he doesn't try to jump over them and get whacked by the cross-bar.

However, no matter how pleasant his voice is and how "deep" the lyrics are, if it were just that and nothing else, the result would probably be similar to, say, Bruce Springsteen's Borefest Of Tom Joad a good three decades later. And this is the place where we have to say our big fat thank you to producer John Simon, obviously responsible for the "atmosphere" of the album at least as much as Cohen himself, if not more so. The idea was to make a record that would be at once classy, elegant, raffinated (Cohen's French influences), and gloomy, mystical, and quietly desperate - in a way, you could say that Cohen was definitely presaging the decadent Euro-rock of Bowie and Roxy Music, although, of course, he was approaching it from quite a different side.

Anyway, Simon is probably responsible for all the bits and snatches of orchestration that run free and wide throughout the album, never tending to drown out the "essence", but giving it extra grace and (where possible) majesty, as well as those inobtrusive female backup voices that actually embellish the songs rather than cornify them. It should also be noted that after repeated listens one starts to notice lots of pretty or "quirky" details in the arrangements that aren't particularly highly noticeable normally, but add significantly to the general impression. A moody, unpredictable keyboard line, a bit of tinkly ominous glockenspiel, some double-tracked guitars, a bizarre Jewish harp, you name it; there is definitely some musical life going on here despite the overall simplicity, just like there definitely is a lot of microorganism life in your glass of water even if you don't notice it.

The album is mostly devoted to love songs, but with a guy as clever as Cohen, you can guess these aren't simple love songs. Actually, a few tracks are quite disturbing love songs - like the six-minute 'Master Song', which is far less accessible than, say, 'Suzanne', for instance, and therefore far less known, but which currently is about to take position as my favourite tune on here though heck if I know what it is about and who is the mysterious 'master' in question. Is this some sort of attack on religion? Or on submission? Or on non-submission? Who can tell? It's intriguing, nevertheless, in a threatening way if I may put it so, especially with all these "ugly" quasi-modern classical "outbursts" of strings emphasizing some of the verses; and speaking of the verses, Cohen's masterful and thrilling pause before the end of each verse is breathtaking.

The rest is somewhat more optimistic, with the pleasant, romantic 'Suzanne', an ode to an old acquaintance of Leonard's from the beat scene, being the best-known highlight and one of Cohen's trademark tunes; most of the others don't fall short either - the circus-flavoured 'Sisters Of Mercy' and 'Hey That's No Way To Say Goodbye' (lyrically, almost like Cohen's personal interpretation of the same feelings that you can find in Dylan's 'Mama You've Been On My Mind') come to mind immediately as tunes that almost come close to catchy. Sometimes "catchiness" here is practically equal to "straightforward repetition", but Cohen has this nasty knack of getting under your skin so tight, you won't even notice just how many times he repeats the last line in every verse of 'The Stranger Song' (two, actually, but I had to check the lyrics sheet just to make sure).

There's even a little hint at diversity with the more, err, uhm, upbeat 'So Long, Marianne' and its elements of "sorrowful waltzing", cheered up by a weepy fiddle (I know that's a paradox, but it's almost true - and it's adequately expressed in the line 'it's time that we began to cry and laugh and cry and laugh and cry and laugh about it all again...') and perfectly placed female backup vocals - in fact, the chorus of the song might be the most memorable, and in some sense, the most uplifting spot on the entire record, even if, once again, it ain't too clear what it is that's supposed to be uplifting. (I could do without making the violins sound like an accordeon, though; there's only so much gallo-fication a man can take!).

And when towards the end of the album Cohen tends to come off the romance thematics and embarks on some sort of mystico-social journey ('Stories Of The Street'), his humble grandeur comes to light exclusively: his pretentious lyrics come off as totally sincere and heartfelt, not to mention beautiful phrase-gems like 'With one hand on the hexagram and one hand on the girl/I balance on a wishing well that all men call the world' that alone make the song worth hearing. He's so grand here that it's only fitting to let the bubble shrink a little with the goofy drunk caterwailing (the coda to 'One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong') that ends the album.

It should probably be noted that the record was Cohen's most commercially successful ever - not too surprising, as the world tended to love and respect beat poetry at the end of the Sixties, not to mention sung beat poetry. But it's truly more than just coincidence, or, if it is a coincidence, then it's a coincidence of much more than two factors. There's the factor of freshness and originality, the factor of a big "pool of experience", considering that Cohen had already been writing poems and dabbling in "artistry" for many years, the factor of John Simon, who knew exactly under which sauce to serve the required dish, and the factor of 'Suzanne' as "big hit" ('Bird On A Wire' was bigger, but was it better? Hard to say). And maybe the factor of strangeness, too? Here was a guy who offered you darkness and uncertainty, but in a manner quite different from that of Jim Morrison, for instance. And for this one occasion, at least, it was exciting to try it out.



Year Of Release: 1969
Overall rating =

A dark, small, suffocated room, to be sure. Lots of cigarette smoke, no air conditioning, depression a-plenty.

Best song: BIRD ON A WIRE

Track listing: 1) Bird On A Wire; 2) Story Of Isaac; 3) A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes; 4) The Partisan; 5) Seems So Long Ago, Nancy; 6) The Old Revolution; 7) The Butcher; 8) You Know Who I Am; 9) Lady Midnight; 10) Tonight Will Be Fine.

From a general point of view, Cohen isn't making any big steps forward here, although nobody probably expected him to. However, a deeper peek reveals some curious differences. Normally, those singer-songwriters that didn't arrive on the stage with a pre-conditioned musical agenda tended to move from simpler to more complex arrangements, from songs that were all lyrics and almost no music to songs that paid more respect to current musical trends (not always successfully, though). With Cohen's first three albums, the process was reversed. If you thought the debut was sparse and "economical", to put it mildly, then Songs From A Room will look like the pinnacle of minimalism (and it would still be topped later on). Among other things, this probably has to do with the change of producer: Bob Johnston takes away much of the orchestration and most of the singing ladies - the only time he employs female backup is to sing the French parts of 'The Partisan'.

I can't say I'm overtly pleased with the decision. It might have taken away any earlier whiffs of cheese, and it certainly forever cut short the possibility of Cohen going in a Bee Gees-like direction (not that there ever was a serious chance - he'd have to learn to sing for that, at least!). But it also cleared the music of all these neat little "touches" that I've been rambling about in the previous review, along the way. There's an interesting "psychedelic" electric guitar tone on 'A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes', maybe a couple very very buried organ phrases on a couple other tracks... mostly, that's all there is. The album does run more smoothly as a result, but the number of "sub-moods" and "mini-atmospheres" has decreased, making the record seriously lag in many spots. For some reason, though, the Jew's harp has not only been retained, but actually transformed into the second most prominent instrument on the album, right behind the guitar. This decision I refuse to understand. The instrument is great when used sparingly, preferably on songs that have "menace" branded all over their bodies, but what is it doing on 'Bird On A Wire', for instance? Imitating the "wire"? Well, then again I suppose it's better to have guitar and Jew's harp rather than just plain guitar, after all.

In terms of substance, I'd say that the lyrics tend to get even more complicated and provocative than last time around, with very few love songs this time and far more social commentary (much of it of a decidedly anti-war character), as well as pure poetic visionarism, subject to as many interpretations as there are wrinkles on Keith Richards' face. Another difference is that on average, the melodies are shining through a wee wee bit more clearly. I certainly don't want to say that the songs on here are actual "songs" as opposed to the ones on the debut album (that would be way too far-going), but gee, if Cohen even tries to bend notes on such numbers as 'Bird On The Wire', 'The Old Revolution', and 'A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes', and does it with moderate success, it definitely means that something is on the move - or, at least, that he obviously has no intention to retire back to the spoken-poetry world for good.

And honestly, 'Bird On The Wire' wouldn't have been half as effective if it weren't for the marvelous transition between the lazy, "careless" verse and the pleading, majestic middle-eight, here perfectly attenuated by one of the few, and one of the best, orchestral outbursts. In terms of recognizability, this is Leonard's claim to fame number two after 'Suzanne', even if it's far more enigmatic lyrically. But you know how sometimes it takes just one line to cut to the heart, even if the rest of the words may be garbage, and Cohen's 'I have tried, in my way, to be free' is one of these lines. Besides, it's hard to really underestimate its influence; just how much was this style of "confessional" singer-songwriting from the first person developed in 1969? Neil Young immediately comes to mind, but when it comes to choosing between the two in this respect, Cohen's still my bet. No wonder so many people have covered this song, chief among them Joe Cocker, whose version, released only months after the original, probably played a crucial role in popularizing it.

Not much on the album is like 'Bird On The Wire', though. After this introductory anthem is over, it is replaced by the usual bleakness, one morose number after another, only really letting it a little loose towards the end; particularly startling is the final number, almost defiantly gleefully called 'Tonight Will Be Fine', carried by an almost "boppy" guitar line and carrying more optimism and positive energy than fifty copies of Songs From A Room (with the final track taken out) put together. A striking parallelism to Dylan's John Wesley Harding, by the way, isn't it? There's a big chance Cohen actually took some lessons from Dylan's big comeback - which might also explain the stripped-down character of Room.

So then in between the Big Freedom-Loving Anthem and the Humble Optimistic Finale, you get songs that are glum, sullen, somber, surly, overcast, satournine, and farouche (this last word I have fished out of the thesaurus and dedicate this here usage of it to Cohen's French ancestors). Of these, 'Story Of Isaac' is the easiest to decipher, and even that took some time; but apparently, it carries an anti-war message, with an analogy drawn between the sacrifice of Isaac and the sacrifice of all the young men in Vietnam - or, rather, the sacrilegiousness of such an analogy. I certainly won't be spending much time on the philological analysis of the rest of these tunes, though, since it wouldn't be as much true philological analysis as it would be a frustratingly futile search of the one right interpretation - but it does seem to me that the general tendency is "bitter social commentary". Songs like 'A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes', 'The Old Revolution' and especially the mysterious 'The Butcher' all have connotations of war/peace and order/confusion in society. Actually, the lyrics of 'The Butcher', with its deep allegory of the complex interaction between God and man (the 'butcher' is the Lord, right?) might be among Cohen's very best - grammatically and compositionally simple, yet brilliant and highly philosophical in their simplicity. They are all pretty nifty musical numbers, too, and prove that Cohen did have a sense of melody - call it 'poetic melody', if you wish, but these songs certainly would have been far 'less' in stature as poems in a book.

The overall "anti-war" message is further reinforced by the album's only cover tune, 'The Partisan', sung partly in English and partly in French, which directly deals with said matter. On the other hand, with Cohen you never really know what kinds of things he uses as metaphors for what other kinds of things. In this here context, I'm not sure that when he sings '...I'm the only one... but I must go on: the frontiers are my prison', we're supposed to take this literally. He can use his micro-world and talk of war or confusion in terms of that, or he can take war and confusion and talk of his micro-world in terms of that. Like a band from Tottenham once sung, "any way you want it, that's the way it will be". (They weren't singing about Leonard Cohen, of course, but thirty years on, who can prove?...).

In between the gloom and the glum are meshed only like maybe a couple or so of the "trustier" love standards - 'Lady Midnight', 'Seems So Long Ago Nancy'; in contrast with the more elaborate love messages on the debut album, these seem a bit underwritten to me, but these are really minor complaints and I wouldn't really know how to back 'em up (unexplainable personal impression - the worst enemy of the objective reviewer). In any case, they do not constitute the meat of this album.

Commercially, the album was relatively short lived; the "young and fresh" feeling is no longer there, and from then on, it was rather obvious that Cohen was consciously limiting himself to a restricted cult following because the novelty factor had worn off and his music would from now on appeal only to hardcore audiences who were finding it easy to identify with the man and his artistic pretentions. So, in retrospect, I have a hard time determining which of the two first albums I prefer; the ratings are very approximate for both.



Year Of Release: 1971

Rounding out Leonard's trilogy is this 1971 release, his last one before a lengthy pause and a rather radical stylistic reinvention. Essentially it's just more of the same, but digging deeper, one sees some substantial stylistic differencies. First of all, if the debut album showed us Cohen the romantic and Songs From A Room demonstrated Cohen the philosopher, then Songs Of Love And Hate is primarily Cohen the pessimist. It's not that there's a lot of hate on the record, but there ain't a lot of love, either. Broken love, sure; morose and grim atmosphere, sure. Lots of, starting with the black album cover and ending with 'Joan Of Arc' - the haunting story of 'romance' between Joan and the fire that consumed her, albeit with rather unclear moral.

The instrumentation is also scarce, much scarcer than before. He still keeps the strings and the female backing vocals, but uses them more moderately; and his own guitar playing has "degradated" to a mere repetitive playing of one single phrase or just a monotonous ping-ping at times. In fact, songs like 'Avalance, 'Last Year's Man' ' and 'Famous Blue Raincoat' come closer to 'mere poetry' than ever before - the sonic background is treated like a simple stylistic touch rather than a significant addition to Cohen's words. There are a couple of exceptions in the form of a few "upbeat" tunes, but the most obvious of these, 'Diamonds In The Mine', is a complete disaster. It sounds like a strikingly out-of-tune, offkey country rocker where Cohen actually tries to sing, adopting a really grating hoarse tone and going for... for God knows what. The song never fits in with the general atmosphere of the record but doesn't fit the role of "breathing-space" either; just a stupid 'deflating' toss-off when there was actually nothing to deflate - since Cohen is not a musician but quite a skillful poet, he really doesn't need to 'un-ambitionalize' his albums like some old progressive rock hero. Likewise, I'm not a big fan of 'Sing A Song, Boys', at least, not of its arrangement with Cohen's ridiculous la-la-la-las that he sings against his band's professional backing vocals, sounding so paranoid and grizzly that you begin to wonder if he actually raised his voice only in order to 'outsing' these backing vocals.

But these things are really out of touch with the rest of the album; with its muffled instrumentation, it definitely invites the listener to pay even more attention to Cohen's lyrics than he did before. The problem is, his lyrics are getting more and more intricate, and at times I can't even grasp the most vague of ideas or the tiniest speckle of meaning in his songs. 'Joan Of Arc' which I mentioned before is a lyrical marvel, and 'Love Calls You By Your Name' is a nice return to the usual messages of his debut album, even if for a long time I was shocked by the song because I misheard the lines 'oh but here, right here, between the peanuts and the cage' as 'oh but he raped her between the penis and the cage'. I've spent quite a few hours meditating on how such a process would be possible...

Anyway, the rest of the songs are just... strange. Bizarre. Atmospheric, yes, and with an occasional glimpse of melody and sharp lyrical twirl, but not too understandable. There's just a very strong aura of cynicism and desperation hanging over most of them ('Avalanche' and 'Last Year's Man' in particular), but I fail to see what it is all about - too often the man goes out-Dylaning Dylan with unclear allegories and undecipherable wordgames ('Dress Rehearsal Rag'), but he doesn't have Dylan's witty sense of humour, and his 'palette of visions' is pretty limited as compared to Mr Zimmerman. I still think 'Famous Blue Raincoat' is a touching and deeply personal song, though (and not just because it's structured as a letter to an old 'friend' and ends with the line 'sincerely, L. Cohen'), but don't ask me to retell the subject.

All in all, a decent effort; but the borderline between the great and the overblown had been certainly crossed. And if you come from the rock world and want an allegory, this record is to the previous two as Jethro Tull's Passion Play is to Thick As A Brick, namely, it's okay, but why bother after the first try?



Year Of Release: 1974

After a three-year break from studio work, Cohen returns with another LP and certainly pleases the vast hordes of his fans (I suppose he had at least a hundred of them by 1974!) - despite its name, the record sounds exactly in the same vein as the previous three. Okay, it is a bit more prominently arranged than Songs Of Love And Hate, with all kinds of various instruments from pianos to guitars to saxes to drums to whatever, but they are all hiding somewhere in the background to let good ol' Leo and his female sidekicks do all the main jobs.

To tell you the truth, much as I enjoy Cohen's general style, you really can't milk the same vibe for an endless number of times. Cohen himself probably understood that, and New Skin turned out to be his last album in the 'introspective quiet singer-songwriter vein'; on his next release, he would fully branch out into smudgey adult pop territory. But there's absolutely no sign of any style transformations on here, it's as if time really stood still for our Canadian bard. What you get is what you already know so well, only the magic has somehow worn off with time, and almost none of Cohen's lyrics produce that deep an impact on here. Even more, there are a few stupid embarrassments. For instance, at last Cohen fell into the inevitable trap - what singer-songwriter wouldn't at one time write something romantic about a night with a prostitute ('Chelsea Hotel')? I admit that the line about 'giving me head on the unmade bed' was a brave and audacious move, but also a controversial one - do we really need our Cohen as an "offenser" a la Lou Reed? Difficult question. Oh, by the way, as suggested below by Aidan Wylde (and confirmed by certain other sources), the lyrics actually refer to Janis Joplin. Sure couldn't figure that out by myself, though - go figure.

The single from this album, 'Lover Lover Lover', is a really strange tune indeed - not only do I completely fail to get the message, but I'm also left somewhat puzzled at the odd inadequacy between the folkish verses and the mantra-meets-Latin chorus. And the rest of the songs seem once again to mostly stick to topics of broken love and suchlike. At best, these efforts do recall the hypnotizing atmosphere of old - 'I Tried To Leave You', for instance, so desperate and beautiful in its inflection-deprived, morose intonation, or the deeply quiet, majestic 'A Singer Must Die'. But still, this is not all that different from the best stuff on Cohen's Sixties albums, and nothing on here has the subtle charm of 'Susanne' or the creepy, chill-sending atmosphere of 'Master Song'. And at worst, the songs that are somewhat less crafted just float by without much of a trace, culminating in boredom anthems like 'Why Don't You Try' or 'There Is A War'. And the album ends on a most dubious note - with the spoiled vocal arrangement on the otherwise cute 'Leaving Green Sleeves'. Not at all a medieval ballad, like the title could suggest, more of a standard Cohen raving; but the horror comes when Cohen actually starts screaming. Now I know that definitely not everybody can be a good singer-screamer: if you don't have a good singing voice, for Heaven's sake refrain from screaming. It's much worse than plain singing off-key. It's... ehhh...

That said, the record is not bad at all, and it does feature what seems, to me at least, one true Cohen classic - the beautiful, intoxicating 'Who By Fire'. Again, Leonard's dreamy, gentle intonations are absolutely hypnotizing, and the backing vocals singing 'and who shall I say is calling' are heavenly. The lyrics themselves aren't among Cohen's most interesting (just a rather simple "list" of different persons, all ending with the sacred 'and who shall I say is calling?'), but the tune goes to show that Cohen is really more than just lyrics. Well, as if we didn't know that before. A great song nevertheless and bravely earns the album half a point which it normally loses for unoriginality.

Not an essential purchase - but definitely a must-buy for all those dedicated to the Heroic Years of Mr Cohen, when he actually played that guitar and used strings and keyboards as delicate shades forming the backdrop to his vision, not as an adult contemporary value in itself.



Year Of Release: 1977

I'm kinda trying to earn the reputation of a guy who keeps salvaging all kinds of miserable records - heck, so far I've been only really cruel to Rod Stewart, but man oh man did he really deserve it. Not so with this commonly despised and much lamented album, even if, to be frank, Cohen should have entitled it Death Of A Poets' Man indeed, because that's what it is.

On here, Leonard suddenly wants to become a mighty powerful superstar, and in order to do that, he finds himself none other than Phil Spector to work with. Now frankly speaking, I have no problem with Cohen and Spector working together. Yes, on first sight the humble, minimalistic, quietly solemn Cohen and the booming bombastic Phil "Wall-Of-Sound" Spector definitely do not belong in the same can - in fact, up to 1977 you could hardly have ever guessed that these two would eventually find each other. It was easier to imagine the Beatles reforming with Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead instead of John Lennon as band leader. And yet, it happened - and as it sometimes happened, two radical opposites produce a somewhat nice marriage. In fact, I quite welcome Cohen's willing to experiment with his sound, and Phil provides him with interesting and diverse arrangements, as well as some lovely melodies to boot.

What really mars the experience for me is that Cohen's lyrics here, for the most part, are abysmal. No, they aren't simplistic or quite easily accessible - great poets rarely manage to embarrass themselves completely. The puzzling thing is, the old boy got somewhat deeply obsessed with sexuality this time, and just about every song on here either deals with problems of (often dirty) sex directly or contains an oblique hint at the problem anyway. And I dunno 'bout you, people, but for me, this gets really really tedious really really quickly. I know Cohen is (was? you could argue 'bout that) a beat poet, and beat poetry treats that stuff without any kind of prejudices, but shouldn't one really know where to stop? Enough, already! 'True Love Leaves No Traces' describes fucking; 'Iodine' describes the effects of fucking; 'Paper Thin Hotel' deals with yearning for fucking; 'Memories' deals with teenage feelings and - naturally - getting some; 'I Left A Woman Waiting' describes fucking again; the title track supposedly tells a tale of a romance between 'beauty and the beast'; and finally, there is a track that's called 'Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On' (about life in a concealed bordello, no doubt). Mick Jagger and Brian Johnson could definitely learn a lesson or two from the guy.

In some way, this is a return to the simple love thematics of Songs From A Room, but that one sure used far more metaphors and displayed more true feeling. Here, the lyrics just make my hair stand on end. Was this supposed to be Mr Cohen's gift to the female half of Earth's population? Eeeh... Now I kinda understand Mark Prindle's joke about Leonard having a 'revolting cock'...

Very pitiful, because with better lyrics the album sure could have been a blast. Musically, the title track is about the only one on the album I can't stand - because Cohen and Spector have worked it into a nine-minute slow-plodding epic (maybe Cohen wanted to have his own 'Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands') and that epic just doesn't go anywhere. That last minute, when the band seems to be gradually ending and ending the song and it never manages to stop completely, just plain bleeds on the ears. Ugh. But the rest is pretty tolerable, with highlights including the slightly upbeat, acoustic-based 'Fingerprints' (the only song that doesn't contain direct sexual refrences), the atmospheric and somewhat touching 'True Love Leaves No Traces', and the excellent sax riffs on 'Memories'.

That said, just about every song on here kinda grows on you if you manage to stay away from the stupid lyrics. But how are you supposed to be staying away from the lyrics on a Cohen record? The vicious circle leaves me with no choice but to give this a three stars - if only he'd interchange them with the ones on any of the previous albums, I could have upgraded the rating even further. I really like how the music works out here. Aren't the people who condemn Cohen for teaming up with Spector the same people (or the same kind of people) who appended the 'sellout' title on Dylan when he went electric?



Year Of Release: 1979

Hmm. Recent Songs? Rather hard to believe, if you axe me. Decent Songs - now that I can understand, because they're all pretty decent. But recent? Who the heck does he think we are? It's 1979 for Chrissake, the age of disco, punk, New Wave, Judas Priest, Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel, and this wrinkly old Canadian still writes his songs the way he used to do that a decade ago? Dumping Phil Spector, overproduction, cheesy orchestration and the rest of the blah blah? Pretty cool. Oh sure, there's still the occasional violin line and still a lot of female backup singers, but remember he's used female backup singers in the grand French tradition since the very beginning of his career.

Speaking of grand French tradition, almost every Cohen record must contain something stupidly shocking, and this one's no exception - what are we supposed to do with Leonard singing the folksy Canadian tune 'Un Canadien Errant' ('A Lost Canadian') in French? Which is not a crime in itself, but I'm kinda shocked at the way he does it. Isn't Leonard a French Canadian by origin? Don't tell me that hideous pronunciation is the way French Canadians speak. Moreover, it's one of the few occasions where Cohen actually tries singing, you know, hitting the notes and extending 'em and all, and that just doesn't sit right with me. In the process, he ruins a perfectly decent and acceptable Canadian folksy tune about a lost Canadian. All lost Canadians should sue Cohen for that one. Banish Cohen from Canada for dishonouring the beautiful French language! (Unless, of course, I'm mistaken and he sings it in standard Canadian pronunciation, in which case I vote two hands for Quebec losing its autonomy. Just look what these guys done to the language of their original homeland).

But enough of that. Discard the stupid, if kinda cute at that, French song, and you'll be left with a wonderful album, a true return to form and a sort of "last goodbye" to his old fans from Cohen, who would soon be spending the Eighties with synth-pop arrangements. I simply have nothing to accuse these songs of. The lyrics are VERY hard to get into, among Leonard's most obscure, complex, full of allusions and intricate references, but that's hardly a sin, and at least they don't seem to deal with fucking all the time. The arrangements, like I said, are extremely tasteful and laid back; not as barely minimalistic as on his earliest albums, with more strings and a bit of brass thrown in sometimes for good measure, but they only embellish the sound, never really taking us away from Cohen and his guitar. Even Dianne Lawrence's portrait of the guy on the front cover is cool.

In all, it's just a masterful return to form - even considering that I kinda liked the last album, despite its, well, dubious character. It should, however, be noted, that Recent Songs is an exceptionally quiet album: there are no obvious climaxes, outbursts of spiritual energy or anything like that. It's more like a totally relaxative, meditative album which is particularly well imbibed late at night when you're in the mood for something thought-provoking and, er, ambivalent. Losing your faith in the world. Feeling unstable. Not in a self-assured righteous mood, never like that. Then it works.

The album yielded no hits (well, it was hardly the most appropriate epoch) and no instant classics; the most recognizable song from here seems to be 'Ballad Of The Absent Mare', mainly because it's the most easily understandable and about the only 'grandiose-sounding' tune on here, a six-minute epic of beautiful imagery that goes from simple pictures of the cowboy hunting for his lost horse and ends in amazing romantic allusions. But that's only one of the highlights, in truth; it's just that the others will make you scratch your head in bewilderment and don't yield themselves so easily to being covered or even discussed.

The opening number, 'The Guests', for instance, is quite haunting in its mystical landscapes - who are the 'guests' Leonard is singing about? People who are in love? Or just all of us who enter this world? What's with the strange verses contrasting with the simplistic chorus ('Oh love, I need you, I need you, I need you...')? So many questions, so few answers. 'Humbled In Love' is just like the ultimate melancholic number, with Cohen treasuring every word he lets out of his throat, kinda savouring it in his mouth slowly before letting go. 'The Window' and 'Our Lady Of Solitude' use slight violin embellishents to perfect results, graceful and beautiful songs that I can't even describe. 'The Traitor' is equally haunting: it really takes time to understand what is the 'betrayal' Cohen is singing of, but once you get at least a faint idea, you'll be moved deep down to that very last corner of your heart that you had always reserved for yourself only. Bah, like I said, every song on here is treasurable in its own way.

It's too bad Recent Songs came to be so underrated - it's nowhere near as "groundbreaking" as Cohen's early albums, in fact, it's an intentional return to the form of his early albums, but oh what a return. It's just subtler, and requires a subtler, more refined approach. So refine yourself! Refine yourself, and see the hidden beauty of this stuff. Yeah, so I'm inviting you to be a sissy. So what? Aren't there enough "tough guys" in the world as it is?


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