Whew, finally re-located, and I am about to crash hard after pulling an all-nighter, but I don’t want to have to wake up to write this here thing today, so what we have today is a good album by one of my favorite artists, and I’m both drowsy and obligated as I write, so I hope you will enjoy today’s entry: Leonard Cohen’s Songs From A Room:
The biggest mystery about this album to me is Wikipedia’s claim that it’s the more “accessible” of it and Songs Of Leonard Cohen. Sure, it’s got a couple of hits and some of my personal favorites, but overall I feel like the instrumentation is very hit-or-miss.
Then again, I think they mean that the feel of the album is less morose than the previous, which also might be true, at least for one song. I don’t know, it’s strange to me to think that a folk album that is less depressing is somehow “better”. This could be due to the fact that my main introduction to folk in this period was Nick Drake, and he is what we doctors call a “bit of a downer”.
Either way, accessibility does not a “great” album make, it can be either as long as it’s good, and this album is that. A bit long in parts but we’ll get through it nonetheless!
We start with one of Cohen’s biggest hits, and it’s one of the best versions that I’ve heard, “Bird On A Wire”. This song is what Leonard himself described as his own version of a Country song, and indeed it’s much like that. In fact, its Country-ness would further be defined by Johnny Cash doing a particularly great cover of it for his American Recordings, once even with a full orchestra! I digress, however, since we’re on the subject of Leonard Cohen, and at least his version has strings and lots o’ Jew’s Harp.
(One substantial nap later)
Right! The second song is “Story Of Isaac”, which is an excellent song, not only for its melody, which I’m really rather fond of, but the actual point it presents. It starts as a first person account of the Biblical story of Isaac, son of Abraham, when God had told Abraham to offer up his only son as a sacrifice, only to stop him at the very last second, showing that the whole thing was a test of faith. Cohen makes the point that we’re sacrificing our children for what we think is a holy reason, but nobody is stopping us at the last second, so Isaac would have us think otherwise. It’s a truly billiant song, if you can get past the near constant buzz of the Jew’s Harp. I’m just not sure what’s up with that instrument and this album.
Worse than that, however, is the otherwise brilliant “A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes” which may remind you (if you’ve been listening to the albums out of order) of “Joan Of Arc”, at least until the chorus. The chorus, however, has this electric guitar in it, and I don’t know what they’re doing to that poor thing, but it’s a dreadful, mewing noise, and the tone is practically non-existent. Why would you do that? I would have used this whole paragraph to talk about what a cool song about the army this is, but I just can’t look past that guitar. Thankfully, it never shows up again, and in fact the next song features a familiar and much, much better style of guitar picking.
Yes, “The Partisan”, a dour song about World War II from a French soldier’s perspective, is the first song on the album to feature Cohen’s early trademark: the rather fast classical finger-picking. It utilizes three notes in a chord being played by the thumb and two fingers in a rotary fashion, so every beat has three notes. It’s a very pleasant-sounding but notoriously hand-crampy way of playing, and I envy the man for pulling it off so successfully, even unto today. The song itself is kind of a rarity, as it’s actually a poem that someone else wrote that Leonard put to music, which is something he did for “Take This Waltz” years later on I’m Your Man. The song features a rather lengthy section sung in French, thus I can’t speak of it too much, as my French isn’t that good and neither is my inclination towards looking it up.
“Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” is a quite depressing song that has conflicting stories about who it was written for. It reminds of “Famous Blue Raincoat” though not nearly as breath-taking. It’s followed up by yet another war-time song called “The Old Revolution” which is a rather meaty 8 minutes in length, and that’s a long time to run a Jew’s Harp.
We then get “The Butcher”, which has a rather interesting little chord structure and timing to it, unique at least among Cohen’s songs. I had forgotten up to this point, but I think he played this one when I saw him play live.
The next song is “You Know Who I Am”, which is an excessively awe-inspiring song. It’s likely about God, but it’s never truly revealed to be so. The minory-ness of it all as well as the vocal melody make it a memorable number, and in fact I wish it was way earlier in the album, because it deserves more spotlight than it gets. In a seemingly boot-legged concert I’ve heard from the 70′s, he starts with this song, and I like that.
We then get “Lady Midnight” with its very prominent (even more prominent than the Jew’s Harp) electric bass. Like the electric guitar, the bass sounds rather flat and toneless in the mix, but it’s not as offensive this time. The song itself is, of course, about a lady, and is rather upbeat in rhythm compared to the rest of the album. That’s not so bad, except that it’s a bit strange for the end of an album. Even stranger is the fact that the final song, “Tonight Will Be Fine”, is not only the fastest and most upbeat in melody out of the whole album, but I’d say probably the entire 1970′s Cohen discography. It even features that triplet finger-picking I mentioned earlier, only this time it’s impossibly fast. Which is not to say it’s not a great song, it is, it’s just kind of an interesting anomaly.
Overall, Songs From A Room is quite an album, though perhaps my least favorite of the earliest three, but that’s not saying much to its detriment, as the other two are just completely amazing to me. I guess the amazement of this particular album is broken up by some numbers with an awkward length, or an awkward chord structure, and especially an awkward over-use of toneless instruments like the Jew’s Harp or electric guitar. Really that’s just a production complaint, and Leonard must have known what he was doing when he changed producers between the first album and this.
Either way, it’s definitely worth a listen, as it does contain some of the best songs of that era. Now I’m going back to bed, good night!