Songs of Leonard Cohen
A Poet of the Vicissitudes of Love
Nothing is absolute in the cosmology of Leonard Cohen. The Canadian songwriter and poet dwells in the deep shadows of the heart, where things slide in all directions, ambiguity reigns, and rational thought no longer serves. A black-humored troubadour of love, he's prone to expressing undying admiration and withering disdain for the same person, often in the same verse, sometimes in the same line or the same word. He specializes in dirges and processionals, and begins them when hope is nearly lost. From there, he goes chasing the longest of long shots, spurred on by a rogue's faith. He's busted up that the Marianne of "So Long, Marianne," one of several muses occupying center stage here, has flown. He laments this bygone love not just with the expected bitterness but overwhelming affection; his pasttense descriptions of intimate moments are so vividly wrought, they reveal him all but consumed by the memory.
Cohen was past thirty before he started writing music and recorded this, his first album. He'd already made an impression as a poet and novelist in his native Montreal, and he carried the literary devices into his earnest troubadour phase. His tales don't always unfold in linear sequence—at times, Cohen's songs are like novels with key chapters missing. In them, love is portrayed as a dizzying dance that sends participants to peaks of exaltation and valleys of torment and back again. As he painstakingly itemizes his own shortcomings and reflects on the steps that led to his present despair, his resigned tone of voice makes the snags and snarls of an affair seem almost heroic.
Cohen's fixation on the alternating currents of love sets him apart from the singer-songwriters sometimes mentioned as his peers. On this album and two exquisite subsequent ones, Songs from a Room and Songs of Love and Hate, he transforms a common songwriter conceit—romance as a path to enlightenment, if not redemption—into an urgent, revelatory, all-consuming epic quest.
Released: 1967, Columbia
Key Tracks: "So Long, Marianne," "Suzanne," "Sisters of Mercy," "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye."
F.Y.I.: Several of these songs turn up in Robert Altman's anti-Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
Catalog Choice: Songs from a Room; Songs of Love and Hate; The Future
Next Stop: Kris Kristofferson: Kristofferson
After That: Damien Rice: O
Book Pages: 179–180