Some days you wake up, possibly after sleeping way too much, and the day outside is cold, gray and hopeless, and you have nothing to do but sit inside and let the day just go by and reflect on life, of past love and failures over a cup of coffee. This is the perfect time to listen to early Leonard Cohen albums:
I’m not sure if it’s just Cohen’s records or if it was the entire 60’s folk scene, but there’s an undeniable relaxing quality about them. This particular album (Cohen’s debut), was put together in an unusual way by mainly just being Leonard on guitar and singing, and other instruments would come in, but would sometimes leave at seemingly random intervals, almost like you were dreaming of them while lost in the spell the song has cast over you. It gives the whole thing a really relaxed feel that conveys very well.
The album starts off with “Suzanne“, which conveniently sets up many of the elements to the overall album in one nice little package. First, the classical guitar and his voice are both played softly, so soft that it’s almost hypnotic. Second, female backup vocals, which he continued using even after his style of sound changed from “folk” to “???”. Third, those masterful lyrics.
There really shouldn’t be any surprise that Cohen’s lyrics are pure poetry. The main reason for this is that he was a poet and an internationally-known novelist long before he ever recorded this debut album at age 33. Many of the songs, including “Suzanne”, had been covered before the album ever came out (by Judy Collins), and continue to be covered (James Taylor being the most recent).
The fourth recurring theme set up in “Suzanne” is the subject matter that Cohen touches on the most: religion, loneliness, and sexual themes. These themes continue right into the next song, “Master Song“, a song about, as Leonard said in a live performance, “the Trinity… we’ll leave that up to the scholars.”
Then we have “Winter Lady“, which is apparently the perfect song to match up with a Clint Eastwood movie (at least that’s what Youtube thinks).
One of my favorite songs on the album is “The Stranger Song“, and indeed that was probably one of his bigger hits on the thing. I linked specifically to a televised performance of the song to show that Cohen has a particular style of playing guitar that he revisits in some of my other favorite songs. It’s a classical method of finger-picking that has the player hitting 3 notes on every beat. It can be incredibly hard to play using that method unless you drain ALL the expression and personality from your face.
The recording method I mentioned previously, where other instruments are brought in and then go away sporadically is first visited in “Sisters Of Mercy” (I don’t know why Youtube feels the need to put his music against random photographs but oh well), which is a song about, well I actually think quoting Leonard would be better, this is from when he played and recorded a concert in 1968:
When I was in Edmonton, about a year and a half ago, I was greeted at the airport by 2 young girls who were wearing mini-skirts, and they said to me that they had introduced the mini-skirt to Edmonton… and they took very, very good care of me, and I wrote this song for them, and it’s called The Sisters Of Mercy.
It should maybe be said at this point that Leonard Cohen has always been quite the ladies’ man (a theme he touches on lyrically in later albums).
The next song is probably the most random as far as instruments coming and going, “So Long, Marianne“, which is a much more jaunty song than the rest, and in fact could be noted as the high point of the whole album. I believe this one, also, has been covered quite often, but I could be wrong and too lazy to research on that one.
The next song, “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” is a song that was taken from a poem he had written earlier. Actually I think that’s true for most, if not all, of the songs on the album, so forget I said that. Honestly, I think a Youtube user in the comments to the video I just linked put it best when he said “This song is the business”. The business indeed, stranger, the business indeed. Incidentally, this particular song introduces the Jews’ Harp, a bouncy-sounding instrument often used in folk and western music, which would become a staple of Cohen’s next album.
“Stories Of The Street” is another excellent song, and features some of the best vocal melody on the album, at least in my opinion. I also quite enjoy the acoustic guitar arpeggio going on in the background against Leonard’s own strumming. The song also features a move I quite enjoy in songs, the end of the chorus ends on a major key version of the song’s minor key and then switches back to minor. I’m not sure how to better explain that, you’ll just have to listen to the song even though Youtube only has amateur covers for videos of it.
Speaking of minor keys and fancy guitar work, “Teachers” is an excellent example of both. It features more of the classical finger-picking that “The Stranger Song” introduced, and the lyrics are a little more metaphorical than the rest, which I am always drawn to. The song moves through a story about the author that has him searching for the teacher of the heart, and features really neat lines like:
I met a man who’d lost his mind
In some lost place I had to find
“Follow me”, the wise man said
But he walked behind
You can read all the lyrics on that Youtube video I just linked to, especially if you want to see ridiculous screen-wipes!
The final song on the album proper is “One Of Us Can Not Be Wrong”, which actually might be my favorite of the whole bunch, especially for showing car commercials against. The lyrics have to do with a very complex love-story, but despite its sad melody, the whole thing seems like a joke told with a pefectly straight face, in a way that you aren’t supposed to know whether to laugh or not. In particular, my favorite stanza is:
An eskimo showed me a movie
He’d recently taken of you
The poor man could hardly stop shaking
His lips and his fingers were blue
I suppose that he froze when the wind took your clothes
And I guess he just never got warm
But you look there so nice, in your blizzard of ice
Oh please let me come into the storm
I don’t know about you, but I consider that beautiful AND hilarious.
The deluxe re-issue of the album I got features 2 bonus songs, “Store Room” and “Blessed Is The Memory”, the latter of which I don’t care for quite as much. “Store Room” is great, though, it’s another song that features the 3-note chop of “The Stranger Song”, with a jazzy electric guitar playing against, and there are even some drums! The lyrics are about not being able to sleep, certainly a topic I can get behind. I’m really glad this song was included in the bonus tracks, as I would have hated to go without hearing it.
Now I feel like my lazy depression has lifted, and another dark day is saved by Leonard Cohen.
Also, apologies for the length of yesterday’s entry, I should probably stop myself in future before hitting the 2000-word mark.
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