Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Leonard Cohen - Songs of Leonard Cohen

Songs of Leonard Cohen (1969) ****

I read an interview in which Cohen stated that the reason that he got into music was that in late '60s, his latest collection of poetry sold 350 copies, while his first album sold 35,000 copies.  Not earthquaking numbers in terms of commercial success, but certainly beats peddling a few hundred pamphlets in a beatnik coffeehouse that no one's going to read, eh?  Let's get to the bad news first:  Cohen is not a musician, he's a poet who talks - not sings! - his way through his tunes, the melodies of which are rudimentary and on initial listen hard to tell apart from song to song (and on third and fourth and fifth listens, as well - let's be honest, several of these songs' tunes are identical).  The musical backing, which presumably most of the credit should go to producer John Simon, consists of softly strummed, rudimentary guitar (courtesy of Leonard himself, I presume), some light strings tastefully but cheesily looming over the proceedings, and the occasional interruption of female backing vocals (noticably on the cheerily upbeat "So Long, Marianne").  That song, however, is one of two exceptions (the other is "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye," which sounds like something Kris Kristofferson would write in his laid-back, easy-listening-sex '70s countrypolitan style).  The mood of the rest of the album is not so much gloomy as world-weary.....what is the French word?.....ah yes, ennui.  Cohen was already  in his mid-'30s at that point, and with an acclaimed and accomplished novel (Beautiful Losers) under his belt, so his view of love was considerably more jaundiced and mature than a typical pop star barely out of his or her teens starry-eyed view of the first flushes of puppy crushes.  Most of the songs are love songs, usually creepy love songs like "Master Song," which may or may not be about S&M but it's definitely about some sort of fucked power dynamic in a twisted relationship.  The lyrics and the way Cohen intones them in his soft but crisp baritone, with the hypnotically repetitive melody, set up a pleasantly unsettling mood, and it's definitely my highlight of the LP.  Not that it's particularly high, for as I said, all the songs tend to sound the same.  Which is to say that the album works as a mood piece if you happen to be in the mood; if not, well....zzzzz.  But if you are, sip some wine, cuddle in front of the fireplace with your lover, and set the mood for an evening of elegant, decadent Old World song-poetry.   The lyrics are the main attraction here, I shouldn't have to add, and they're quite good - actual poetry by an actual poet, not the usual psuedo-meaningful grab-bag of Beat gibberish (sorry, Bobby Dylan).  It would be something of an injustice for me to reduce the essence of Cohen's narratives and imagery in this brief review; just listen to the words yourself and let them soak in accordingly.

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