Saturday, January 28, 2012

January 28: Leonard Cohen, "Songs Of Leonard Cohen"

Artist: Leonard Cohen
Album: Songs Of Leonard Cohen
Year: 1967
Label: Columbia

Perhaps due to the massive amount of changes as now-legendary artists that emerged within the period, many of the most important performers of the 1960's seem to take a back seat to those of lesser importance on a far too regular basis.  Though not to disparage any artist in particular, the reality is that there were a number of blues-based rock bands from the U.K. that were making extremely similar music, and in the United States, one can see a similar trend within the world of folk and the singer-songwriter style of performance.  Due to these realities, one must look to the performers outside of this trend to find those individuals that were truly essential to the development of music during that time, and in this, few can hold their own against the work and impact of Leonard Cohen.  On almost every level, Cohen completely defies the norms within music, whether it is due to his background, his overall sound or the way that his career progressed; and one can argue that it is because of this completely unique set of circumstances that his music has been able to endure far better than nearly any other performer from his era.  Having already established himself as one of the most well-respected writers and poets on the planet, in the late 1960's, Leonard Cohen began to again pursue his love of music, and his 1967 debut, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, stands as one of the most distinctive and outright groundbreaking records in history.

Musically, the entire Songs Of Leonard Cohen album is a sharp diversion from what was going on in other genres at the time, as it is musically closer to the folk sound, and yet there is an element within the music that remains completely unique.  It is the sparse, almost dark nature that comes through on these songs which places it so far from the "standard" folk sound, and one can argue that it is within the music of Leonard Cohen where the difference between "folk" and "singer-songwriter" styles of music can be properly experienced.  Rarely using anything more than his guitar for instrumentation, it is the energy with which he plays that makes each song so completely captivating.  In many ways, it is the economy with which he uses notes that becomes so stunning, as perhaps even more than the later punk rock movement, there is not a note on any of these songs that is not completely necessary to the overall sound.  The purposeful absence of drums not only ensures that the mood stays intact, but it allows the lone guitar to provide a somewhat chilling rhythm to the song, and each track has a sway that is unlike anything else in music history.  Furthermore, it is the fact that Cohen is able to find so much range and diversity within the rather simple musical arrangement which vaults this record into a category all its own.

Though one can argue that the music throughout Songs Of Leonard Cohen certainly provides an ample amount of mood, it is the way that Leonard Cohen's voice adds to this overall tone which makes it impossible to ever forget any of these recordings.  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 some of the finest musical pictures in history.  It is the almost sparse and open nature of his singing which adds to the overall allure of each song, and yet there is a slight diversity within his singing that enables the overall album to gain a great deal of depth.  However, few will argue that there is an aspect of the music of Leonard Cohen that is more engaging than his lyrics; and this is not very surprising due to the fact that at the time of this recording, he was already an internationally recognized poet of the highest regard.  Whether it is the somber, slightly haunting way that Cohen conveys "Suzanne," or the similarly moving "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye," it is the straightforward manner with which he sings that is the key to the impact of each song.  Yet while many of the songs may seem to suggest otherwise, the reality is that Cohen manages to speak about human relationships, yet never about love; and it is this small difference that shows his work in a completely different light, opening new avenues to countless artists that followed.

While Leonard Cohen has certainly been given credit for his presence within the music of the late 1960's, one can easily make the case that he is still seen as a "secondary" artist when compared to many of his peers.  This is outright wrong, as Cohen remains completely unique within the overall world of music, as no other artist has been able to create songs with a similar tone or emotion, leaving him in a category all his own.  Furthermore, the fact that each of his songs is still able to hold up without any caveats more than four decades later places him into the most elite musical company, and this fact also serves as a testament to the extraordinary accomplishment that is Songs Of Leonard Cohen.  Nearly every song on this album has been covered over the years, and it is within the range of artists that have created their own versions of his songs where one can fully understand just how significant his contributions remain.  From Roberta Flack to R.E.M. to Judy Collins to The Lemonheads, Cohen's music has touched nearly every style of music, and the band Sisters Of Mercy took their name from the song found on this record.  Yet it almost goes without saying that none of these later covers come even close to the tension and spirit found on the originals, and due to this, and the overall perfection found within, there is no other album in history quite like Leonard Cohen's brilliant 1967 debut, Songs Of Leonard Cohen.


charlotte said...

brilliant album! one of my favorite. and even after all these years Leonard Cohen is still creating the best music of our time. His new album Old Ideas is released on Tues! Check out his new song "Darkness"

MacKenzie said...

There's some great covers being put out right now. I just heard Paper Thin Hotel covered by Greg Dulli and it's definitely worth checking out.