Counterbalance No. 144: ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’

Leonard Cohen
Songs of Leonard Cohen

Mendelsohn: Hey, Klinger, I didn’t know Al Pacino released a record of folk tunes. I think he made a good choice sticking with the acting career. A couple of the songs are OK, but the majority of this album is a snoozer. That said, why do you think Pacino would go so far as to release a record under the name Leonard Cohen? That’s just weird, right?

Klinger: Mendelsohn, that sharp thud you just heard was my head hitting my desk. I’ve just spent the last couple weeks reacquainting myself with one of the most intelligent songwriters of the 20th century, and realizing that I’ve been sorely negligent in my Cohenology study. In this time I’ve come to understand that Leonard Cohen’s work not only rewards repeat listenings (to use a standard rock snob turn of phrase), but actually demands serious attention in order to fully appreciate the nuances of lyric and melody, and you come back saying it’s a “snoozer”? Songs of Leonard Cohen is one of the smartest albums that the Great List has handed us to date, the work of popular music’s most literary lyricist. If you found it to be a snoozer, I humbly submit that you’ve done it wrong. If you’re trying to rile me up right now you’re doing a great job.

Also he clearly looks more like Dustin Hoffman.

Mendelsohn: You couldn’t be more wrong. Cohen is a dead ringer for Pacino. Hoffman doesn’t have the gravitas or the dead, soul-less eyes or the calculating, furrowed brow that comes with being a master at your art—like Pacino (mostly) or Cohen (apparently).

Look, I’m nothing if not predictable. If I don’t particularly like an album, I usually resort to incendiary remarks in hopes of sparking some sort of lively debate or even leading the conversation off topic. Because nothing says I want to take a nap more than having to talk about Leonard Cohen. Unless you want me to actually listen to Leonard Cohen, in which case I will most certainly be taking a nap. This record makes me sleepy, Klinger. Nothing against Cohen, but his monotone vocal approach and soft flamenco strumming makes my eyelids heavy.

I want to listen to what the man is saying and if you say he is the most literary of lyricists, I will believe you, but unless you expect me to absorb this record through sleep osmosis, it ain’t going to happen.

Just tell me why this record is here. Who’s to blame? Is it Europe? Can we blame Europe?

Klinger: I suppose one could blame (or, more accurately, thank) Cohen’s chart successes in the UK for his continued standing among critics. Here in the US the reaction was somewhat more guarded. In the 1983 edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide, for instance, Dave Marsh—always among the most strident rockists among our rock critics — gave Songs of Leonard Cohen a respectable-enough four-star review, but managed to come up with about 14 different ways of calling Cohen’s music morose. Which I think is less than fair.

Cohen eschews the big production that, say, Phil Ochs ended up employing—a move that apparently came about after a battle of wills with producer John Simon. As a result, Songs of Leonard Cohen ends up sounding like something of a detour in rock history, what might have been if psychedelia had never happened and music stayed on the course that Bob Dylan had charted with Blonde on Blonde. (Of course, if John Simon had carried the day, he might have delivered the same folksy instrumentation that ended up making Music from Big Pink and The Band so refreshing, and maybe you’d have a more charitable opinion of this LP.)

Mendelsohn: Morose music is popular in the UK? That seems so out of character for those upbeat Brits, what with all the sunshine and general good times going across the pond.

I’m a little frightened by the possibility of an alternate universe where psychedelica never happened. As much as I’ve made jokes at the expense of those paisley-wearing flower children, the groundwork that psychedelica laid down informs a lot of the music I enjoy listening to (as opposed to the music I have to listen to). I’m not sure, though, how this record falls in line behind Blonde on Blonde. To my ears, Dylan was a much more forward-thinking songwriter. Not nearly the one-trick pony of Cohen’s intellectually gifted lyricism wrapped in dour notes. Blonde on Blonde, while a straightforward take on the burgeoning rock sound, is much more diverse. I wouldn’t use the word “diverse” to describe Songs of Leonard Cohen.

Klinger: Well, you’re right, Songs of Leonard Cohen does betray a certain uniformity of sound that Dylan has generally managed to get beyond, which may be why we discussed Blonde on Blonde about 61 years ago and we’re just getting to this album now. But I think you’re falling into the same trap that Dave Marsh and his ilk fell into—the belief that quiet equals soft equals boring. The fantastic melody behind “Suzanne” alone should disabuse you of that notion, but you also get the propulsive fingerpicking of “The Stranger Song” to keep you engaged throughout the process. Or me, anyway.

And then there’s that insistent chorus of “So Long Marianne”, which gets lodged in my head like a Jolly Rancher—in part thanks to those gloriously chirpy background vocals from Nancy Priddy (who was John Simon’s girlfriend at the time and later went on to give the world the gift of her daughter Christina Applegate). “So Long, Marianne” is a song that places Cohen’s songwriting firmly in a pop tradition, so much so that it was later covered by Brian Hyland (“Sealed with a Kiss”, “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”). No matter how dour a pigeonhole he’s placed into, Cohen’s wry sensibilities are never far from the surface.

Mendelsohn: It’s not that I think quiet equals soft equals boring. Don’t get me wrong, this album bores me, but it has nothing to do with it being quiet. Quiet done well can be just as moving as loud; go ask Joni Mitchell. The thing is, I don’t find this album moving, and that might be the problem that Dave Marsh was having as well.

The record is well put-together, buoyed by Cohen’s sharp wit and unmatched lyricism, but it feels like he’s holding back at every turn. He doesn’t have to be loud but when you get more emotion out of the backing vocals by Ms. Priddy (thank you for Christina, by the way), I think that is saying something about the record. It’s almost like Cohen is reading a book into the microphone while he noodles on his classical guitar. I don’t find that captivating.

Klinger: Well I apologize for mischaracterizing your position, but I am frankly a little baffled by your obstinacy. I also don’t recall you enjoying Joni Mitchell all that much. It seems you are having a hard time wrapping your head around Cohen’s voice, which I reckon is a common issue. Maybe I’m just more used to that style, but in his voice (again, such as it is, I know) and his style I hear not only an expansion and reapplication of the folk music from whence Dylan sprung, but also the artsier, fartsier Warhol scene that gave us the Velvet Underground (which Cohen was also tangentially a part of). That might sound counterintuitive, but really what is something like “Black Angel’s Death Song” or “Venus in Furs” but a couple of folk ballads that got tangled up in feedback and scratchy violas? In their base form, they’re practically Leonard Cohen songs.

So maybe that’s why I’m predisposed to like this album. I hear it as very much a part of at least one of the overarching traditions that make up the popular music narrative. The narrative with the Jewish guys with not-conventionally-beautiful voices, apparently. Plus Lord knows I’ve drunk more than my share of critical Kool-Aid in my decades of poring over lists and ratings and whatnot.

Mendelsohn: What’s in that critical Kool-Aid, Klinger? I must have gotten a bum cup because I’m not feeling anything yet.

Look, I didn’t care for Joni Mitchell’sBlue but only because she made me sad. Listening to Cohen doesn’t elicit any response from me. If anything, Songs of Leonard Cohen fills me with a visceral apathy so fiery hot that I almost want to take off this long-sleeved shirt. Almost.

I appreciate the line between the Velvet Underground and Cohen. That makes quiet a bit more sense then I thought it would have after going back and listening to “Venus In Furs” followed by another spin through Songs of Leonard Cohen. The difference between Velvet Underground and Cohen — besides 141 spots on the Great List — is the feedback and scratchy violas and Lou Reed, who is monotone in a much more delightful way. There is an inventiveness to VU’s entire package. An inventiveness that I don’t get from Cohen at least not when it comes to all aspects of the record.

Seriously, though, when is this Kool-Aid going to kick in? Can I have another cup? Maybe a double dose will do the trick.

Klinger: Keep chugging, Mendelsohn. Keep chugging.