Songs From A Room, Cohen’s second album, was for me a great improvement over his first because of restraint in the use of strings, clarions and angelic choirs, and because the compositions themselves were fairly even in quality (with “Bird on the Wire” and “Story of Issac” two really tight, clean stand-outs). And short — he shouldn’t be straining the frail but frequently quite lovely melodies to five and six minutes, as he does on Songs of Love and Hate. But this record, alas, goes back to all the trash that cluttered up the first album — schlock horns, schlock strings, schlock chorus — as if to make of it a style. Recognizable, yes no one but Leonard Cohen could have come out with these arrangements but a style, no.
There are a couple of terrific songs on this one (Cohen is one of those artists who would benefit greatly by a “Best Of” album), though the record as a whole has not the charm that his first develops after a long while it is not as likable, because it is frequently downright depressing.
“Famous Blue Raincoat.” of the two, is the one that really improves with each hearing: it is about something, which gives the lyrics a spine the other songs on the record lack, what with images longer, more obscure and frequently tangled than before. “Famous Blue Raincoat” is the characteristic L. Cohen hymn to promiscuity (“Winter Lady,” “Tonight Will Be Fine,” among others): “And you treated my woman To a flake of your life. And when she came home/She was nobody’s wife.”
It is in this song that the female chorus is most harmful — it draws attention to the lyric, for one thing, which is at that point most inane: “And Jane came by with a lock of your hair/She said that you gave it to her …” But the guitar here is restful, not the usual busy-signal that one finds on “Avalanche” here and “Songs of the Street,” for instance, on The Songs of Leonard Cohen.
The other highlight is “Joan of Arc.” That Cohen mostly sets music to verses (whether or not he writes the former first) is painfully clear when he recites, above his own singing voice in the distant background: “Myself I long for love and life But must it come so cruel and oh, so bright?” But there is the melody (nice), the chorus works reasonably well, and the lyrics sound perfectly fine when sung: “She said I’m tired of the war I want the kind of work I had before …”
“Avalanche,” the first song on the first side, hears the famous Cohen mosquito-hum guitar, a distracting stutter. The image here is abjection, and I think (hedge) that it is about the temptations of pity (“It is your flesh I wear”). But it is pretended abjection, after all the weakness, a constant theme of Cohen’s, is a pose: “The cripple that you clothe and feed Is neither starved nor cold.” As on “Love Calls You By Your Name,” later on the record: “Wondering when the bandage pulls away. Was I only limping? Was I really lame?”
“Last Year’s Man” and the cut that follows it, “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” create the same mood (depressing) but “Last Year’s Man” is more literary sometimes quite nicely, as in the refrain: “The skylight is like a skin/On a drum I’ll never mend/And the rain falls down on last year’s man.” “Dress Rehearsal Rag” has what may be a very slight echo — whatever it is, it does wonders for Cohen’s voice — and the chorus works well here within the relative simplicity of the Army, Cohen’s band.
“Diamonds In The Mine,” the last song on the first side, indicates to me the essential stylelessness of the production, or perhaps the lack of stylistic integrity — though I was satisfied with “Bird on the Wire,” an earlier excursion into country sound. His voice screams, yells, spits, is so ugly that you fumble for the reject button or try to concentrate on Bob Johnston’s fine piano (he also produced). His spoken exhortations (“You tell ’em now,” addressing the chorus; closing with “That’s all I got to say”) won’t exactly make you want to shake your little body.
On the other side, “Love Calls You By Your Name,” shifts persons (from second to first), does a lot of interesting things with prepositional constructions (“Between the snowman and the rain … between the victim and his stain …”) and so on, and has a bunch of nice lines (“shouldering your loneliness like a gun you will not learn to aim”), and has direction but it just can’t be carried for six minutes.
“Sing Another Song, Boys,” which appears to be a live recording of some sort, begins with a recitation (like “Joan of Are”) of the last verse, which comes off a bit embarrassing. Both his gifts and his painful excesses are evident. “His hand on his leather belt Like it was the wheel of some ocean liner,” does not, somehow, do it for me, and I’d be glad to sponsor a contest for an alternative to: “She tempts him with a clarinet She waves a Nazi dagger.” But then: “They’ll never reach the moon At least the one we’re after …” and “But let’s leave these lovers wondering Why they cannot have each other.” That’s nice.