Icon: Leonard Cohen
The mantle of poet is too often bestowed on any musician with a flair for the polysyllabic, but in Leonard Cohen’s case, it’s merely a statement of fact. Before he made his debut on record in 1967, Cohen published several volumes of poetry and a brace of novels, which helps explain the density and rich detail of even his earliest songs. Although he’s widened his range in recent years, Cohen’s voice has always been a limited instrument, but his sonorous rasp meshes perfectly with the earthy transcendence of his lyrics.
Cohen’s acolytes are among the most devout in popular music, but they’re not always the best ambassadors to the outside world: their cultish references to Cohen’s artistry are often tinged with sophomoric devotion, as if listening to Cohen’s albums required a goatee and a subscription to Granta. Luckily, Cohen often takes himself less seriously than his admirers, particularly in the latter part of his career, once he got the upper hand in his lifelong struggle with depression and spent five years in a Zen monastery.
Although he recently had most of his fortune stolen by his former manager, the principle motivation for the tour that produced Live in London, Cohen has probably never been so serene. He skips on and off the stage between songs, his buoyancy belying both his age and the darkness of his songs. Cohen’s return may have yet to occasion any new material, but the vibrancy of his performance proves his songs remain as vital as ever.
For those looking to dip a toe in Cohen's waters, there's no better place to start than at the beginning. Containing some of Cohen's most enduring songs — "Suzanne," "Sisters of Mercy" and "So Long Marianne" among them — Songs introduces his pet themes of lust, spirituality and the place where they overlap. "The Stranger Song," used to immortal effect in Robert Altman's hazy post-Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller, comes closest to... Cohen's original vision of the album, just his weary voice and a flurry of Spanish guitar echoing through space, a marked contrast to the sometimes overbearing orchestration of later years.more »
Leonard Cohen's first album was an unqualified triumph which announced the arrival of a bold and singular talent, and many who heard it must have wondered what Cohen could do for an encore. By comparison, Cohen's second album, 1969's Songs from a Room, was something of a letdown. While it's a fine LP, it ultimately feels neither as striking nor as assured as Songs of Leonard Cohen. Bob Johnston stepped in as... producer for Songs from a Room, and his arrangements are simpler than those John Simon crafted for the debut, but they're also full of puzzling accents, such as the jew's harp that punctuates several tracks, the churchy organ line in "The Old Revolution," and the harsh synthesizer flourishes on "A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes." Johnston also had trouble coaxing strong vocal performances from Cohen; his singing here sounds tentative and his meter is uncertain, which regardless of how one feels about Cohen's much-debated vocal prowess is not the case with his other work. And finally, the quality of the songs on Songs from a Room is less consistent than on Songs of Leonard Cohen; as fine as "Bird on a Wire," "You Know Who I Am," "The Story of Isaac" and "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy" may be, "The Butcher" and "A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes" simply aren't up to his usual standards. Despite the album's flaws, Songs from a Room's strongest moments convey a naked intimacy and fearless emotional honesty that's every bit as powerful as the debut, and it left no doubt that Cohen was a major creative force in contemporary songwriting. [In 2007, Songs from a Room was given a remastered reissue by Sony/BMG as part of a revamping of Cohen's back catalog. The new edition includes two bonus tracks, early versions of "Bird on a Wire" and "You Know Who I Am," which were produced by David Crosby. While he might seem an unlikely studio partner for Cohen, the results are better suited to Cohen's talents than what Johnston brought to the songs, and one wonders how the album might have turned out with Crosby at the controls. The reissue has been given a handsome book-style package with plenty of archival photos, song lyrics and new liner notes from Anthony DeCurtis.]more »