When Songs of Leonard Cohen dropped in 1967, Rolling Stone critic Arthur Schmidt was underwhelmed. “There are three brilliant songs, one good one, three qualified bummers, and three are the flaming shits,” he proclaimed. Reading Schmidt’s review, I feel validated in my own struggle to enjoy an entire Leonard Cohen album. “Teachers”, “Winter Lady”, “Love Calls You by Your Name”, at least half of Songs from a Room, and the better part of the albums Cohen’s recorded since the mid-1970s –- neither their lyrics nor their melodies move or intrigue me. Even his best songs, such as “Suzanne”, do not yield for me the riches that Cohen’s devotees find in them. And when I ask these Cohen-ians which truths and beauties I’m failing to discover within their hero’s tower of song, they pelt me with the same vague generalizations: he’s a poet, he conflates Biblical and erotic imagery, he’ll whisper wisdom into your ear when you’re having a rough day. Even Anthony DeCurtis, the Rolling Stone contributor who penned liner notes for each of these reissues of Cohen’s first three records, often stumbles in his role as a Cohen apologist. With the exception of a paragraph of helpful song analysis in his discussion of Songs from a Room, DeCurtis simply rehearses the same old set of Cohen platitudes (“He’s literate, timeless, etc”) while failing to support his remarks with suggestive evidence.
Milquetoast liner notes aside, these new deluxe editions of the three works with which Cohen established himself as a songwriter for the ages –- Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), Songs from a Room (1969), and Songs of Love and Hate (1971) -– provide all of us with an excellent opportunity to relisten to and reevaluate Cohen. For one thing, some exquisite remastering allows us to hear this music at its fullest; these albums are for the first time actually worth owning on CD or as MP3s. The bonus tracks are also elucidating: the demos tacked on to Room and Love and Hate show that Cohen’s lyrical and vocal presence transcends accompanying musical arrangements. (The two previously unreleased tracks that have been added to his debut are lite fare.)
When revisiting Cohen’s first record, I noticed just how fully formed an artist he was when he entered the pop world. Blame age and experience: Cohen had already published loads of poems and a couple of novels in his native Canada before deciding in his early 30s to pursue music. He had also gotten a chance to warm up by writing tunes for other artists; Judy Collins’s version of “Suzanne” met with warm critical and commercial reception two years earlier. One more reasons Songs of sounded so mature: it was helmed by John Simon, a fantastic producer best known for his work with The Band. Cohen disapproved, famously, of the baroque flourishes that Simon added, but I find touches like the sawing strings in “Master Song” to be delightfully surreal. By offsetting the Cohen’s world-weary monotone voice and leaden guitar strums with music box sounds and angelic female choruses, Simon underscores the strangeness of this seasoned writer’s foray into pop. Remember, the people who would buy Cohen’s records weren’t supposed to trust anyone his age.
Cohen’s age and allegiance to an older generation of bohemian culture allowed him to forge a distinct artistic voice with his first album. These qualities also rescued his work from the flaws most prevalent in the countercultural music of the late ‘60s. His first album’s clunkers -– “Winter Lady” (forgettable melody), “Teachers” (strained and awkward), “Stories of the Street” (lyrics rife with profundities that aren’t actually profound) –- are noble misfires when compared to the cliché-ridden duds that clutter up so many psychedelic long-players. One could even argue that Songs of’s sense of timeliness stems not so much from its Biblical allusions and musings on human nature as from the fact that it wasn’t even a natural product of its on day.
Speaking of Biblical allusions, Cohen makes one of his most compelling references to the Good Book in Room’s “Story of Isaac”. Here he retells a story from Genesis in which God tests Abraham’s fate by asking him to sacrifice his newborn son Isaac. At the beginning of the third verse, Cohen interrupts the narrative to make a didactic pronouncement: “You who build these altars now / To sacrifice these children / You must not do it anymore.” These lines encourage listeners to link the Biblical tale of sacrifice with the US government’s willingness to sacrifice its young to Vietnam. This connection remains tenuous, however, as Cohen’s lines never posit the Biblical story as precise allegory.
Tenuous connections are fine for Cohen, though. He views all events –- historical, personal, textual -– as mythic, as illustrative of eternal, transcendent struggles. And once events become myth, they become ripe for reappropriation -– they become, in other words, the stuff of pop music, that art form that thrives on its listenership’s ability to make sense out of songs by interpreting them in light of personal experiences. (Note how he often signals these reappropriations with the indefinite pronoun “some”, as if to revel in just how easily one can reread and recontextualize figures like the Biblical Joseph) To achieve this sense of mythic transcendence, Cohen often cuts out significant details. For instance, we know little about Suzanne other than that she serves tea and oranges. The motivations of both her and that song’s narrator are left mysteries –- if they weren’t, maybe you or I would have more difficulty plugging ourselves into the song.
At his worst, Cohen sings lyrics that are too vague to stand on their own, sounding as though he’s pandering to depressive undergrads in need of a pop song in which to wallow. And at his best -– well, Cohen still begs us to complete the picture, to establish the significance of his famous blue raincoats without his help. Truth is, Cohen’s lit-rock approach doesn’t elevate the pop muse as much as it exemplifies it. A Cohen tune, just like a Madonna tune or a Nickelback tune, seeks a broad audience by allowing for a strikingly wide range of interpretations.
Cohen always remains keenly aware that pop’s charm lies in its utility. Humming, wordless singing, and muffled, echoing voices haunt each of these albums, often functioning as cathartic finales to disturbing songs (as in “Sing Another Song, Boys” and “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong”). He anticipates that his melodies will live on, with only a fragment of their content intact, in the minds of his listeners. He also suggests that a song’s true emotional impact rests not on its words, but on more primal, sublinguistic forces. I won’t disagree. Sometimes a drunken chorus of “la”s voices a feeling more eloquently and intelligently than an epic simile. And perhaps this is why Cohen’s own charms cannot be fully explained by generations of otherwise articulate scribes. At the end of the day, early Cohen is gut music.