Every so many years a new audience discovers the music of Leonard Cohen. Recently this was spurred on by the documentary tribute movie put together by producer Hal Wilner and director Lian Lunson. Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man starred a diversity of talent that included U2, Jarvis Cocker, Rufus Wainwright, Beth Orton, and many other notable musicians. The success of this film (and subsequent DVD release) inspired Cohen’s record company to reissue several of his old albums with new bonus tracks. The resurgence of interest in Cohen also seems to have motivated Shout! Factory to put out a 20th anniversary edition of Jennifer Warnes’ interpretations of some of Cohen’s most striking songs, Famous Blue Raincoat: The Songs of Leonard Cohen.
The knock on Cohen has always been his gravelly voice. Like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Neil Young, the rap against Cohen has always been if only he could sing better. That parochial outlook ignores the fact that these individuals really know how to emote and phrase their marvelous verses. Still, no one really disputes the exquisite quality of their lyrics, which have found their way into poetry sections of college literature anthologies. Cohen’s deadpan delivery gives his songs a somber quality that he playfully uses for full effect. Other singers, most notably his early champion Judy Collins, have sweetened his material by vocalizing in an ethereal voice. Collins’ cover of “Suzanne”, for example, turns his ambiguous portrait of a lady into an idealized hippie chick by crooning so prettily. Her gossamer treatment has its merits, but it does seem far removed from Cohen’s original intent.
Warnes, who used to sing back up on Cohen’s albums before recording this disc in 1987, takes a much different approach that mirrors his own. She generally sings in a non-affected, low range that gives the songs a cool, Brechtian feel. For example, she vocalizes the dark lyrics of “Bird on a Wire” such as “Like a baby stillborn / Like a beast with his horns / I have torn everyone who reached out to me” over a martial beat as if she were reciting a grocery list. One can hear and understand every carefully annunciated word, but it’s the listener’s job to figure out how to take them.
The new audiophile version of this disc brings out the smoky clarity of Warnes’ voice as well as the playing of the back up musicians, which frequently include violins and violas in a chamber music type setting. These songs don’t rock, but rumble. The one great exception is her version of “First We Take Manhattan” that features the blistering blues sound of Stevie Ray Vaughn on electric guitar. The instrumentation complements the apocalyptic vision and in this one case, Warnes spits out the lyrics with venom. At the opposite end of the sonic spectrum is “A Singer Must Die”, sung a capella by several voices in an arrangement by Van Dyke Parks and Bill Gin. The quiet discord offers a different kind of beauty, a choral enchantment of sorts that’s no less disturbing.
Cohen’s talent lies in his ability to write songs that are rich in nuance without being obscure. He honestly speaks of deep feelings and erotic thoughts, but he never gets maudlin or gushy. Warnes understands this and knows enough to let Cohen’s words tell the story. Twenty years ago before she achieved fame and fortune singing hit songs for the movies, like “I’ve Had the Time of My Life”, with Bill Medley from Dirty Dancing and “Up Where We Belong”, with Joe Cocker from An Officer and a Gentleman, Warnes put out this nine-song sampling of offering of Cohen’s oeuvre to little fanfare. This anniversary edition, which also includes four bonus tracks and a 24-page booklet with photos from the past, may finally give the album the acclaim it initially deserved.