Leonard Cohen

      Songs of Leonard Cohen (Columbia, 1968)
     Songs From a Room (Columbia, 1969)
      Songs of Love and Hate (Columbia, 1971)
   Live Songs (Columbia, 1973)
      New Skin for the Old Ceremony (Columbia, 1974)
      Best of Leonard Cohen (Columbia, 1975)
  Death of a Ladies' Man (Columbia, 1977)
    Recent Songs (Columbia, 1979)
     Various Positions (PVC, 1985)
     I'm Your Man (Columbia, 1988)
     The Future (Columbia, 1992)
    Cohen Live (Columbia, 1994)
     Best of, Vol. 2 (Columbia, 1997)
     Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979 (Columbia, 2001)
     Ten New Songs (Columbia, 2001)
     The Essential (Columbia, 2002)
    Dear Heather (Columbia, 2004)
      Live In London (Columbia, 2009)
    Live At The Isle of Wight 1970 (Columbia, 2009)

Leonard Cohen is the Jewish Bryan Ferry. In the excellent liner notes of 1975's The Best of Leonard Cohen, he explains the suave cover photo: "I rarely ever look this good, or bad, depending on your politics." That sums the man up. Running for the money and the flesh, especially the flesh, Cohen was the literary rogue who strummed his acoustic guitar and croaked of love and its torments. He emerged from Montreal in the 1960s, an acclaimed poet and novelist well into his thirties before he even made his first album. Yet for all his poetic angst and folkie sorrow, Cohen could never hide the fact that he was getting more rock-star booty than any Canadian before or since. Whispering in his glamorously tattered voice, he still makes his songs sound like sinful confidences shared over bottles of bloody-red wine.

He already had his style down on Songs of Leonard Cohen. No one has ever accused him of being a real guitarist, but for some reason, you can always tell it's him playing. In "Suzanne," "Master Song," and the peerless "So Long, Marianne," he sounds bemused by his own romantic travails, inventing what critic Robert Christgau called "his tuneless, grave, infinitely self-mocking vocal presence." His songs are strictly verse-chorus-verse, with hardly any bridges or fancy bits. Robert Altman used three of the tunes in the soundtrack to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, adding to Cohen's legend.

Songs From a Room is thin and sparse, weighed down by "Bird on a Wire," which became a schlock standard. But Songs of Love and Hate is the gangsta shit—even the one with the children's choir is so intense you can't turn it off. Cohen sings about jealous rivals ("Famous Blue Raincoat"), demon lovers ("Avalanche"), cold and lonesome virgin warrior goddesses ("Joan of Arc"), and God knows what else ("Let's Sing Another Song, Boys"), bursting with wit and imagination. New Skin for the Old Ceremony is almost as great, featuring the boho romance "Chelsea Hotel No. 2." Note: Oral sex on unmade hotel beds is almost always a bad idea, since those bedspreads are laundered usually about once every five years, but songs about it are still cool.

Since then, Cohen has recorded sporadically—he apparently has the novel idea that before you make an album, you should wait until you have an album's worth of good songs. The only total waste is the Phil Spector collaboration Death of a Ladies' Man. Recent Songs has "Came So Far for Beauty." (Next line: "And I left so much behind.") Various Positions has "Hallelujah," which unexpectedly became Cohen's signature song after Jeff Buckley revived it in the 1990s. I'm Your Man perversely adds cheesy Eurodisco synths and disco-girl vocals to some of his bleakest tunes: "Everybody Knows," "First We Take Manhattan," "Tower of Song." The Future has a hilarious eight-minute send-up of Irving Berlin's "Always," plus political/spiritual statements along the lines of "Anthem" ("There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in").

By now, Cohen was bigger than ever, inspiring doom disciples such as Kurt Cobain, Trent Reznor, and Nick Cave. He spent most of the 1990s on a mountaintop Zen Buddhist retreat, while Cobain was down in Seattle singing, "Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/So I can sigh eternally." Ten New Songs offered "Alexandra's Leaving," "In My Secret Life," and "You Have Loved Enough," the epitaph Cohen has been writing for himself throughout his career. Dear Heather turned the chestnut "Tennessee Waltz" into a wonderfully croaky dirge.

Cohen has released three best-of anthologies, but bizarrely, none of them include "Joan of Arc." Of his live albums, Field Commander Cohen is a worthy 1979 document, but one to hear first is his career-capping Live In London, from a world tour Cohen embarked on after discovering that his former businness manager had bilked him out of $5 million, leaving him down to his last $150,000. The 74-year-old Cohen testified for three hours a night, literally skipping on and offstage, with the climactic eight-minute jam "I Tried To Leave You" his testament to a lifetime's worth of sinister solemnity.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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