No doubt part of his brilliance as a songwriter comes from his inherent abilities as a poet and novelist. While it was December of 1967 before he released his classic debut album Songs Of Leonard Cohen, he had already been awarded the prestigious Quebec Literary Competition Prize in 1964 for his first novel, The Favorite Game; even before that, during his college years in the early '50s, his poetry was garnering citations and frequent publication. Scanning the list of awards, achievements, honorary degrees and hall of fame inductions he's earned in his career will take you a few minutes, and also gives a sense as to how respected the man is in three completely different writing disciplines (poetry, fiction and songwriting). It doesn't take much research to begin finding laudatory quotes from some of the finest writers in the history of rock praising Cohen for the influences he's had on so many others; so many of those I respect as writers (including Suzanne Vega, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Lou Reed and Patti Smith, off the top of my head) pretty much gush when asked about Cohen and his body of work. He's also never been accused of backing away from life, always a plus for an insightful writer. From several epic romantic relationships in his life to a half-decade seclusion at a Buddhist center near Los Angeles, Cohen has clearly never been afraid to assess either his own life or the world around him, characteristics that combine beautifully with his incredible wordplay, allowing him to deliver recorded masterpiece after masterpiece. Of Cohen's twelve studio releases, there are four in particular which have been overwhelming favorites during my journey as a rabid music fan (and all four would be with me on the fabled desert island). I'm Your Man and The Future are releases from the later part of Cohen's career and deserve a blog post of their own at some point in the future. For this post, I'll focus on the first Cohen albums that had a profound effect on my life, his debut and New Skin For The Old Ceremony.
New Skin For The Old Ceremony
I'm starting with Cohen's fourth studio album because it was essentially my real and proper introduction to his work. I was twelve when his debut was released, so I missed out on the initial excitement of that album. New Skin was released in August of 1974, almost seven years after the debut. Keep in mind that this was still an era when artists released albums a lot more frequently than they do today; the "album a year" standard was a pretty loose rule, but followed by a lot of people, so four studio albums in seven years was already a slower pace for releases than most (and, of course, Cohen would become even less prolific with time). Though I missed out on the debut, by this time in my life "Suzanne" was already a radio staple and a song well known to me and anyone listening to FM hippie rock back then. Still, that was close to my entire knowledge of Cohen's work when New Skin was released. He wasn't really a name that was in the forefront of my mind... until I heard "I Tried To Leave You" on the local album rock station and absolutely flipped. The incredibly stark feel to the song was such a perfect match to the lyrics, still among the best examples of an intense love/hate chronicle I've ever heard. I was taken from the start, and when that little, muted horn began to play in the background, I did what I had so often done in that era - called the radio station, found out the name of the album and immediately drove to the record store to buy a copy. As much as "I Tried To Leave You" affected me, I doubt I was prepared for the emotional punch in the gut that was the album's opener, "Is This What You Wanted." Never before and rarely since had I heard such a brutal indictment of a lost love affair, probably ill-fated from the start. "You were the sensitive woman, and I was the very reverend Freud / You were the manual orgasm, and I was the dirty little boy / And is this what you wanted, to live in a house that is haunted / By the ghost of you and me?" I can't even estimate the number of times I've heard this song, sometimes for entertainment, sometimes for solace, and it still amazes me to this day.
Such is the case with the entirety of the album. There's something, sometimes many things in each and every track that all amaze me for the creativity and artistry shown. It's hard with a man as talented as Cohen to point to "his best work" or any such thing, but I do feel that that imagery and the intensity of emotion presented in these songs are certainly among... well, his best work. Even the title of the album is almost a poem in its own right, an image of a sadly faded relationship now just going through the motions - and it takes a poet with Cohen's vision to express that powerful a sentiment in only six words. The cover shows a woodcut of two regal, angelic beings enjoying carnal pleasures and whether by intent or due to the limitations of the medium, they don't look overjoyed (a perfect companion to most of the sentiment of the album); and what a perfect touch of irony that the cover upset enough people at the time that it was censored for a while, replaced by the record company with a simple photo of Leonard. Perfect irony!
For all the triumphs on this album, all eleven of them, I'd still feel I was falling short if I didn't make special mention of the song "A Singer Must Die." It works on so many levels, the powerful lyric depicting an artist begging sarcastic forgiveness for his own creativity that ran afoul of the mainstream, coupled again with Cohen's mournful voice against bare guitar and string/horn flourishes that are both distant and yet oh so essential. I can't help but imagine that anybody who has been rebuked and/or misunderstood for making the effort to create would find sorrow and sympathy in the words, "And I thank you, I thank you for doing your duty / You keepers of truth, you guardians of beauty / Your vision is right, my vision is wrong / I'm sorry for smudging the air with my song." It's one of the most defiant apologies I can imagine, yet later in the song, Cohen sheds light on the damage that can be done by continually having to fight for your art, for your heart and soul, as he sings, "And I am so afraid that I listen to you..." The power and conviction of Cohen's soul coupled with his own weaknesses and doubts couldn't be more effectively transmitted.
For the era, it was one of the rare times when I violently disagreed with the Rolling Stone review of an important album. I didn't specifically recall the review, just that I hated it, and when I checked the Stone archives, I remembered why. Writer Paul Nelson said the album was "...not one of his best, but there are songs on it that will not be easily forgotten by his admirers," and later says "The current album is unfortunately marred by John Lissauer's coproduction... and generally insensitive, melodramatic, obtrusive arrangements." Wow! I'd love to have a conversation with Nelson now and see if he still feels the same way in retrospect; I've missed the mark on reviews a few times in my life, but I can't imagine missing it by more than this. Calling the arrangements insensitive and especially obtrusive is way up on my list of "worst calls ever" by Rolling Stone. If anything, production and arrangements on the album were incredibly daring in their subtlety and laid the foundation for some of the stellar works still in Cohen's future.
Songs Of Leonard Cohen
I'm covering this second for my own logical reasons; after being so taken with New Skin, it was only natural that I would go back to discover Cohen's previous work, and this was his debut that contained the only other song by him I was familiar with, so it was a natural! It was an odd step back into time, as there are a lot of similarities between the two albums. Both, of course, feature Cohen's trademark vocals, which early on were a sort of distant, noncommittal style of passion (long before the gravel set in). Both feature a very spare approach to the production of the songs; these songs are essentially guitar based folk tunes at the core of them, though I feel the album is distanced from being pure folk by the wonderful and subtle overtones lent by a variety of instruments. The entire key to the album's production is the idea that nothing ever overwhelms Cohen's voice, which is essential. He is, at the heart of it, a master of words, and those words should and do take center stage here.
It's interesting in retrospect, then, when I read about the making of the album to find that Cohen was actually quite at odds with producer John Simon. Simon was a "replacement producer," stepping in when the famed John Hammond took ill and was unable to produce the recordings as originally planned. Cohen and Simon reportedly argued over both instrumentation and production, Cohen arguing for a bare sound and Simon feeling the songs needed the additional instrumentation. If the album sounds like a compromise between the two positions, it essentially is, in part due to the constraints of 1967 technology; according to biographer Ira Nadel, Cohen was able to make some changes to the mix to move the album closer to his own vision, but some of Simon's additions simply couldn't be removed from the master tapes, which were only four-track recordings (standard for the time). Personally, I think I'm glad that those restrictions kept Cohen from completely removing the additional flourishes. So many years later, I still find the album to be refreshing for the many layers the songs contain, and I'm not sure that a completely bare approach wouldn't have detracted from the effectiveness (and longevity) of the record.
Where this differs from New Skin is in the brutality of that album's emotion. That's not necessarily a bad thing; some of the subtleties of these songs didn't really connect with me on first listen, but I was fascinated enough with Cohen's talent to keep diving into the songs until I was able to truly appreciate them. It's decidedly far less of a sledgehammer to the psyche than New Skin, not that I'd call Songs an uplifting album. Depression and lost or fading love are still the major themes here. Still, where New Skin is pretty much a wall-to-wall document of despair, Songs shows moments where Cohen is trying to temper the losses, looking for some thread of salvation within. "Suzanne," of course, is perfectly beautiful within its own non-specific imagery; after all this time, I'm still not sure (and don't really care to be) whether it's an ode to a future or past love, and that vagueness and room for listener interpretation is a lot of what keeps the song classic. "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye" is almost an antithesis to most of New Skin in that it's looking for that bright side to parting, making an effort to commemorate the good without dwelling only on the sorrow of a broken love. While this slight difference in the intensity of emotion surprised me a little bit, I think it has also added to my extended enjoyment of Cohen's debut. The fact that it didn't hit me so hard at first was probably a welcome change, in fact, and I've enjoyed the record numerous times over the years, always discovering a little nuance here or there that hadn't struck me before. It's an album that has grown in my esteem as the years pass, another classic work I'm grateful for.
After revisiting Stone's review for New Skin, I thought it would be fun to see what they had said about this album (like I said, I was twelve and among other things hadn't actually discovered Rolling Stone magazine yet). It's always fun to see what was said about the classics... or is it? I was shocked! Writer Arthur Schmidt, after opening his review by talking about how he's grown to appreciate Cohen's voice, literally says, "The record as a whole is another matter - I don't think I could ever tolerate all of it. There are three brilliant songs, one good one, three qualified bummers, and three are the flaming shits." That sound you heard was indeed my jaw hitting the floor; Schmidt at least goes on to say that Cohen is a brilliant poet, but then says it simply doesn't translate to songwriting. It's another case where I'd love to hear now if the man's opinion has changed any over the course of time and tide. I don't know exactly when this review was written, but it wasn't published until March of 1968 (over two months after the album's release), so I'd also be interested to know if the reviewer had time to let the record sink in before writing his piece.
As it worked out, Leonard Cohen obviously had the last laugh on both of those horrible reviews; it's over four decades later and his concert tours still sell out worldwide. That's perhaps the finest tribute to the timelessness of the man's music; who would have ever thought that a 79 year old man could still be playing to adoring audiences after all that time, without making any compromises to his music? While I was researching this post, I came across an interview with the BBC where Cohen was discussing his career, and my favorite part of the interview was when he stated that his greatest honor in life was that he was able to write what he wanted to and get paid for it... he was never paid to write. I certainly feel like I'm honored to have had his insights and the sheer brilliance and power of his words as a large part of my own life's soundtrack.