Wednesday, September 7, 2011


Leonard Cohen has been making music and songs for over four decades and outside of Bob Dylan is one of the most accomplished and influential singer/songwriters to emerge in the late 20th Century.

Cohen was born and raised in a middle-class Jewish family in Montreal, and published poetry and novels in the early and middle 60s before moving into songwriting and creating music. He achieved high critical acclaim with his novel Beautiful Losers which was published in 1966.

This literary quality transferred into Cohen's songwriting and his first album Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967) was an artfully constructed masterpiece of poetic beauty. The songs depict a world dominated by love and lust, rage and need, and compassion and betrayal. The relationship of men and women are often the framework of Cohen's songs, with love as the catalyst to go deeper into humanity's frequent use of mental and physical abuse, and its occasional use of kindness. Songs of Leonard Cohen creates a stark portrait of men and women trying to come to terms with these relationships. It is mostly acoustic guitar and Cohen's voice, but there are some subtle musical effects that add a touch of polish by producer John Simon. There are many dark, beautiful, and emotionally moving songs on the album including Suzanne, Master Song, The Stranger Song, Sisters of Mercy, and So Long, Marianne. Robert Altman used many of the songs to great effect on the soundtrack of his film McCabe and Mrs. Miller that came out in 1971. Few musicians have ever created a more remarkable or enduring debut.

Cohen's second album Songs From A Room came out in 1969, and is similar in approach but even more simple than the first album. It's a fine album that has many strong and memorable songs, such as Bird On A Wire and You Know Who I Am, but is not quite as consistent as Songs Of Leonard Cohen.

My favorite record by Leonard Cohen is Songs of Love and Hate (1971) which established him as the master of erotic despair. The album is made up of eight emotionally intense songs and encompassed the physical, emotional, and spiritual side of love as expressed in Last Year's man (the physical), Famous Blue Raincoat (the emotional), and Joan of Arc (the spiritual).

The hate, anger, and contempt manifest themselves in Avalanche and Dress Rehearsal Rag where the despair reaches suicidal proportions. The venom that comes out in these songs can only come from someone who once cared deeply.

The production on the album is also different from the first two records in that Cohen's voice is deeper and closer, and the added musical elements of orchestra and a children's choir add an emotionally resonant punctuation to the songs. Still the album's framework allows Cohen's lyrics and voice to be the main focus.

More than anything this album is an emotional powerhouse, one of those records (like Lou Reed's Berlin) that has an effect on me every time I listen to it. Listening to Songs of Love and Hate over and over, saved me, after a the end of a relationship I had many years ago.

New Skin for the Old Ceremony came out in 1974. The songs on this album have a more orchestrated sound using many instruments, but still overall there is a spare effect. One of Cohen's best known and moving songs, Chelsea Hotel #2 is on this record. Cohen lived at the famous New York Hotel when he wasn't in Montreal. It tells the story of meeting a famous singer in an elevator which leads to a sexual encounter described in the song. Other major songs on the record include Is This What You Wanted and Who By Fire. The original cover art had an image from the alchemical text Rosarium philosophorum depicting the sexual embrace of two winged and crowned beings.

Death of a Ladies Man (1977) was a new direction for Cohen as the album was produced by Phil Spector and displayed his famous wall of sound. Some critics liked the record but others felt Cohen was submerged in the mix. It included jazz, rock, and even funk-influenced arrangements and was recorded in LA. Cohen was not happy with the album, but noted that it was the favorite among punksters. 

Recent Songs (1979) was a return to acoustic folk music but still had jazz influences. The album included the Gypsy violin player Raffi Hakopian and the Armenian oud player John Bilezikijian. There was a Mexican Mariachi band on the record and Jennifer Warnes prominently appeared in the vocal tracks. Members of the band Passenger played on four of the songs. They had been introduced to  Cohen by Joni Mitchell. Garth Hudson of The Band also appeared on the album.

Various Positions (1984) turned to a more modern sound including some electronics and also included a major contribution by Jennifer Warnes. It includes the song Hallelujah which is one of Cohen's most beautiful, loved, and covered compositions. Other notable songs on the album include Dance Me to the End of Love and If It Be Your Will.

I'm Your Man came out in 1988, and gained Cohen many new and younger followers. His high baritone voice had now dipped into the lower registers (bass baritone and bass), and the mix included a wide variety of instruments and female backup singers. There are many excellent songs on this record including First We Take Manhattan, Everybody Knows, I'm Your Man, and Tower of Song. Sharon Robinson started writing with Cohen on this record and started a collaboration that would last for many years.

The Future (1992) had a similar sound to I'm Your Man with Cohen's deep voice high in the mix. The music includes gospel-choir choruses (The Future), synthesizer ballads (Waiting for the Miracle), pop country (Closing Time), and staccato-like rhythms (Democracy).

Many of the songs from I'm Your Man and The Future were included in film soundtracks, opening Cohen's music up to a larger audience. Everybody Knows  along with If It Be Your Will were used in the film Pump Up The Volume. Natural Born Killers (1994) used Waiting For A Miracle, Anthem, and The Future to great effect.

In 1994, Cohen retreated the the Mount Baldy Zen Center near LA and embarked on five years of seclusion. He was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist Monk and took the Dharma name Jikan which means silence.

Leonard Cohen has produced two other studio records in the 21st Century - Ten New Songs (2001), and Dear Heather (2004). Sharon Robinson played a hugh collaborative role on Ten New Songs, and jazz chanteuse Anjani Thomas made a major contribution to Dear Heather.

Over the years, Cohen has produced several live albums. Live Songs came out in 1973 and in recent years Live In London and Songs From The Road were released. Live At The Isle of Wight from1970 also came out recently. All are excellent editions to Cohen's body of work.

Leonard Cohen is a songwriter and vocalist whose literary and poetic work is thought provoking, emotionally moving, and hauntingly beautiful.

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