Well, it looks like Loneard Cohen’s second try won’t have them dancing in the streets either. It doesn’t take a great deal of listening to realize that Cohen can’t sing, period. And yet, the record grows on you, and if you give it a chance, it has something to offer. But you can hardly be blamed if you aren’t willing to take the time.
The first thing that has to be with-stood is his voice. It’s monotonous in a literal sense of the word. He seems to be sort of dragging one tone slightly up and down the chromatic scale. His voice almost never has an edge to it; it just remains where it is. Probably this is just as well. He knows his limits. Just why he wants us to know them is another question. In our cases, it presents a formidable barrier to the understanding of his poetry, rather than being an unobstructive vehicle for it.
Maybe that, too, is just as well. On paper, Leonard Cohen’s poetry is cleanly worded, youthfully direct, and, as George Orwell once said, when writing of “good” bad poetry, “a graceful monument to the obvious.” It is also remarkably salable, Recorded, it’s none of these, except, maybe the last.
His poems become muddled in his singing and lost in his intonation. When he does come through with clarity, as in “Story of Isaac,” he is matter of fact to the point of being dull. When he’s not being matter of fact, but rather obscure, as he is in “A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes,” he’s just irritating. Other singer-poets are obscure, but generally the feeling comes through that an attempt is being made to reach to a heart of meaning. But Cohen sings with such lack of energy that it’s pretty easy to conclude that if he’s not going to get worked up about it, why should we.
But something else does evolve on the far side of these stumbling blocks. It is a sound portrait of a man and of mood. A picture of Leonard Cohen: a terribly poetic, sensitive person who is depressed and depressing and who is capable of a great deal of honesty. His poetry, which might be considered sophomoric, becomes more serious when you realize that the man is pouring out his life before you. It becomes a somewhat painful thing to hear.
And this portrait is drawn, not so much by the songs themselves as by Bob Johnston’s production around them. The backup and arrangements, while they occasionally underscore Cohen’s weakness as a singer, are superb at creating mood. The predominant mood is one of nostalgia and a rather wistful tenderness. And to someone who can relate to this sort of mood, the album would be appreciated.
But, if you’re looking for more than a portrait of moody Leonard Cohen, and in search of more substantial music, then pass this by.