Tuesday, September 21, 2010

September 21: Leonard Cohen, "Suzanne"

Artist: Leonard Cohen
Song: "Suzanne"
Album: Songs Of Leonard Cohen
Year: 1967

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

While there are many fascinating trends within the decades of recorded music that can be explored, one of the most enjoyable is looking at the inversely proportional relationship between how quiet a song is versus the overall level of musical perfection.  This comes to be due to the fact that it is far more difficult to hide shortcomings or errors within the confines of a more stripped down musical arrangement, as opposed to louder songs where one can almost "hide" behind the wall of sound.  Oddly enough, many of the best examples of this ability for more hushed performers to reach great musical heights have occurred during times when far more aggressive musical norms were the trend, and the bursting rock and psychedelic scenes of the late 1960's was certainly one of those moments.  It was during this time period that many new styles of music were born, and one of the most unique was the unforgettable blend of folk music and beat poetry that can be heard within the music of the great Leonard Cohen.  Without question one of the most influential and talented performers in history, Cohen in many ways re-defined "quiet" music, as his songs were often stripped completely bare of anything more than a lone guitar and his voice.  It is due to this that his songs carry with them some of the most powerful moods ever, and one can experience everything that is the genius of Leonard Cohen in his 1967 masterpiece, "Suzanne."

It is on "Suzanne" that one truly realized how much can be accomplished with so little, as the music of the song is little more than a lone guitar.  The progression the guitar follows is also rather basic, and yet the melody is completely captivating and is able to convey a mood unlike nearly any other song ever recorded.  From the moment "Suzanne" begins, there is a gloomy, almost mystical mood that is further enforced by the tone of the guitar as well as the overall "empty" feeling that is presented in every aspect of the song.  This is perhaps where Cohen's background as a writer and poet come into play, as he clearly had a far greater understanding of mood and creating dramatic scenes than a majority of his peers.  Along with the unforgettable guitar work, there is a small string section that makes a brief appearance, and it is this element that gives "Suzanne" an almost spiritual feel, as the song seems to soar away, making it unlike anything else ever recorded.  The combination of the two sounds gives the song an almost classical feel, and though it seems to be a folk instrumentation, one can easily hear just how far away from folk the song is, and it is much the reason "Suzanne" remains in a category all its own.  One can pick out elements of Latin music, folk, jazz, and even blues within "Suzanne," and the fact that so much is at play within such a stripped down sound cements the legend and matchless musical genius that is Leonard Cohen.

Though this musical element is unlike anything else ever recorded, it is possible to make the case that even without the music, "Suzanne" would have been a hit, as Leonard Cohen possesses one of the most unmistakable and captivating voices in history.  His strong, deep voice helps to capture and push forward the setting of being on along the river in Montreal, and his direct, clear singing helps to paint one of the finest musical pictures in history.  Truth be told, "Suzanne" was written about a very specific woman; the wife of Canadian sculptor, Armand Vaillancourt.  Though the song strongly implies that there was some sort of relationship between the two, over the decades they have both confirmed that at the time the song was written, they had met only one or two times, and that is perhaps why "Suzanne" has been able to become a song with a far more universal feel.  However, the picture that Cohen paints throughout the song remains largely unmatched, as it is vivid on a level unlike any other song, and one can easily picture the small room on a cold river.  It is perhaps due to his writing background that Cohen can achieve this, as the small details, like the oranges and tea, or the way Suzanne is dressed make the song move far beyond its peers.  Yet the words also have a strange, almost haunting feel to them, and it is this unexpected contrast, along with the deep, almost soothing voice of Leonard Cohen that makes "Suzanne" such an unforgettable musical achievement.

Adding to the case for the iconic status of "Suzanne" is the amount it has been used and covered over the decades by a wide range of artists.  Performers from Judy Collins to Nina Simone to Nick Cave have all made their own recordings, and the influence of Cohen's style can be heard in the music of groups like R.E.M. and Peter Gabriel.  Due to these facts, one cannot deny the lasting impact of Leonard Cohen, yet it is almost unimaginable that his distinctive sound could get a firm foothold during an era when loud, psychedelic rock was overshadowing nearly every other style of music.  However, it is perhaps due to the dark, somewhat menacing mood to his songs that made them so appealing, as this aspect sets them far apart from folk and into a category all their own.  Leonard Cohen's entire 1967 debut is filled with such songs, and it is within this album that one sees "Suzanne" is not a "one off" achievement, and it is difficult to find even the slightest fault in any song on that record.  While many artists were able to hide their musical imperfections behind the volume of the songs, Leonard Cohen places his talents out in an unguarded, straightforward fashion, and this feeling of honesty and authenticity is one of the reasons his songs have endured the decades.  Writing what may very well be the strangest, perhaps creepiest, yet undeniably beautiful ode to a woman ever recorded, there is simply no other song quite like Leonard Cohen's 1967 classic, "Suzanne."

No comments: