There are, in The Favorite Game, Leonard Cohen’s first novel, several scenes in which people ask the hero (presumably Cohen, since everything else fits) to sing. A friend of mine read the book and finished with one question: if the guy was Leonard Cohen, why did they keep asking him to sing? I think that is untrue — the more I listen to this LP the more I like his voice. It is a strange voice — he hits every note, but between each note he recedes to an atonal place — his songs are thus given a sorely needed additional rhythm.
The record as a whole is another matter — I don’t think I could ever tolerate all of it. There are three brilliant songs, one good one, three qualified bummers, and three are the flaming shits.
The problem is that, whether the man is a poet or not (and he is a brilliant poet), as those ridiculous ads announce in hushed tones of reverence, he is not necessarily a songwriter; his three successes (“Suzanne,” “The Master Song,” and “The Stranger Song”) are stories, ballads whose progression of meaning becomes more important to Cohen than his poetic bag of tricks. Elsewhere, this kind of delicacy, put to the rigid demands of music, sinks into doggerel: “I lit a thin green candle/To make you jealous of me/But the room just filled up with mosquitoes/They heard that my body was free.”
Worse, in the same song, “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” (only forgivable if a parody of Dylan, and then questionable) Cohen does what has become reputable for the songwriter aspiring to poetry; he has confused the marijuana or fatigue silly high with the insight of poetry (one can blow one’s mind promiscuously): “Then I took the dust of a long sleepless night/And I put it in your little shoe/Then I confess that I tortured the dress/That you wore for the world to look through.” Then there is the standard Dylan trick of reversed images (“smoked my eyelids and punched my cigarette”): “I showed my heart to the doctor/He said I’d just have to quit/Then he wrote himself a prescription/And your name was mentioned in it.” The poet-become-songwriter runs the risk of imprisonment in his new discipline, because he does not come to it naturally.
The arrangements are beyond even sympathy; a fact I take Cohen to recognize in his notes to the album: “… they were forbidden to marry. Nevertheless, the arrangements wished to throw a party. The songs preferred to retreat behind a veil of satire.” Would that it were that easy. In “Marianne,” the lyrics of which are reasonably unpretentious, there is a chorus, the musical ancestors of which are the Hi-Los. In “Teachers” there is a hard guitar sound, ridiculously inappropriate, copped, if I remember correctly, from Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” a better song. On the last song (“One of Us Cannot Be Wrong”) the arrangement fades into a hilarious cacophony — but the Beach Boys did this kind of thing better in Smiley Smile (and they aren’t even poets). If this is satire, it is satire after the fact. In back of most of the songs is an indistinguishable Muzak hum.
But three songs make the LP worthy of purchase (unless one is interested in culture heroes, like Janis Ian, in which case the other songs are infinitely more valuable).
“Suzanne” is a song of distance; doggerel exists when there is no place to go: this song goes into a center and out again, resting, finally, closer to the center than it began. Cohen, with the second person, is telling you how you (he) feels. Further distance.
“The Master Song” is ambiguous — but the art of its ambiguity does not interfere with its ability to move. There is, in Cohen’s novel, and in places on this LP, a kind of faith in the regenerative power of degeneration, of sadness, perhaps even of evil. The song works also — I don’t know whether this is the intention — as a song for two of the characters of Beautiful Losers, Cohen’s second novel.
“The Stranger Song” is perhaps the best. Cohen the aphorist here realizes that aphorism is more insight than surprise. The simplicity of the imagery does not interfere with the feelings of the characters nor the situation, nor does the images crowd the loneliness. Here is perhaps the most moving statement Cohen can make: “And he wants to trade the game he plays for shelter/And he wants to trade the game he knows for shelter.”