... feminist, atheist, autistic academic and historic narrowboater ...
Likes snooker, beer, tea, rivets and solitude, and is strangely fascinated by the cinema organ.
And there might be something about railways.

Saturday, 13 February 2021

Leonard Cohen

Yes, I know what you're going to say: I'm meant to be cheering you up, and yesterday we had dead kittens, today the maestro of misery. But part of the reason for this is to dispel that caricature, or at least to challenge it, as it was immediately blown apart for me when I first properly took an interest in his work.

Coincidentally - or who knows, maybe not - having never knowingly listened to a single Leonard Cohen track, I decided to investigate at just the point in my life, around fifteen years ago, when I was exactly ready to appreciate it. I bought a CD of the 1975 Best of... compilation, in an HMV shop, and put it on in the car. The opening track is Suzanne, which I had previously only known from the Neil Diamond cover (and I liked it well enough then). I was immediately, inescapably, hooked. That expression is so over-used now as not to do justice to the way it grabbed hold of me, heart and guts, and wouldn't, still hasn't, let go.

When I got out of the shower in November 2016 and heard Suzanne being played on Radio 4 at six thirty in the morning, I knew he'd died.

After that Best of... I went on to buy every other studio album that was released in the UK - I think (I haven't become an obsessive completist collector in this case; this time it really is just about the songs) - catching up over the course of a few months, and then getting the last three (but one, I notice - there, I said I wasn't obsessive), I think, as they came out. I have mislaid that original compilation, which is a shame, and have consigned Death of a Ladies' Man to the oubliette along with Scott Walker's later oeuvre (as an aside, I have never taken any illegal drugs, let alone really bad quality ones, but I have listened to twenty minutes of Tilt by way of recompense). Occasionally a track will return to haunt me because I can't quite bring myself to delete it from Amazon Music, but it isn't going to feature in any top ten.

And that is kind of the purpose of today's post. I have often wondered whether this or that track, or this or that album, is my absolute favourite, and today I am going to work my way through the lot, picking my favourite track from each album, then ranking them. There are of course, caveats: my favourite track today might not have been my favourite track five, or ten, or fifteen years ago, although in fact my preferences have remained remarkably stable. The most fitting track for any moment depends of course upon one's mood, and one's life at the time but again, I'm not sure that affects which ones I love the most. Finally, of course, it's like an election in a first past the post system - some albums contain three tracks that could be in any top ten, others none. So I'll note this as I go along. The aim, by tonight, is to have three lists: best track on each album, ranked; ten best tracks overall, and albums ranked. I'll keep coming back and updating throughout today (and maybe tomorrow). Let the Lenfest begin.

Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Straight away I'm seeing that it might not be that simple. I knew this album is loaded with great tracks; I thought it was going to be a difficult choice between Suzanne, Sisters of Mercy and So Long Marianne. The latter two are great tracks, and So Long Marianne was the first one that got me  singing along this morning, but I was ambushed by Master Song, which I had almost overlooked. Master Song goes on what I would call my 'bitter list' (of which more later); it has a certain nastiness to it, whereas Suzanne is just beautiful and poignant. Both, however, are packed full of imagery, Master Song much more densely. You never forget that Cohen was a poet long before he was a singer. Two songs, describing, maybe, two relationships, remembered in two very different ways. Both use their verbal-visual images to conjure fragments of feelings in impressions rather than descriptions. Master Song encapsulates everything I think is great about how Cohen does this for the ambiguous and negative side of things, but I think Suzanne (which also has its elements of ambiguity) edges it because of the tune and the accompaniment, which complements the words so well in creating the sense of ... I hesitated a long time there trying out different words, and the best I have so far is ... impossibility.

Songs from a Room (1969)
If your first or only experience of Cohen was this quintessential difficult second album, you could see how he acqired a reputation for being depressing. It's not the content of the songs, but the tunes, arrangements and delivery that make this one of my least favourite albums. Bird on the Wire is one of those songs everyone has heard of, and it sounds like a dirge, and the imagery feels laboured. Story of Isaac is probably my favourite of Cohen's songs on this album, but it is very much a story (even if an allegorical one) rather than a poem. The first album was all metaphor and impression; this from the title track onwards is more simile, allegory, and (relatively) straight narrative. One song actually stands out for me, and it's the one Cohen didn't write: The Partisan.

Songs of Love and Hate (1971)
And then it's my god, what's hit me?  If the last album was one of despair and hopelessness, this one reels with and revels in anger, disappointment and frustration. This is an album for playing loud and howling at the moon. Dress Rehearsal Rag and Diamonds in the Mine make it onto the bitter list, easily.  We're back to songs full of images that don't make sense, but they create such pictures. I don't understand what they mean, but I know how they make me feel, and they know how I feel. Probably the best known song on here is Famous Blue Raincoat, a beautiful evocation of loss and regret and it being too late. I love it. But there's one song on this album that is one of the few on any album that makes me stop what I'm doing, turn up the volume, and stand and listen: Sing Another Song Boys. What's it about? I have no idea. But it is so powerful, so menacing, so very bitter - and also rousing and exhiliarating. I can't imagine an album like this being made today.

New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974)
The pattern repeats itself; after the tour de force of Love and Hate this feels like a makeweight. Chelsea Hotel #2 is probably the best known track; for me it's one of the few that - I was going to say 'leave a nasty taste' - well, I will say it. If you twisted my arm for my favourite tracks on here I think I'd go for Who By Fire, for its oddness, or Lover Lover Lover for its plaintive refrain, but nothing from here is going to make the top ten of tracks. The best thing about this album is its cover, which is - and this isn't saying much - the least worst of all the Leonard Cohen albums I have, despite being surprisingly rude. It was apparently censored in various ways in some countries, including the UK when it was first released, but not on my CD. I say it's the least worst because it does at least look as if a bit of effort has gone into it; it is actually an illustration, and it looks as if a tiny bit of thought has gone into the design and layout. But, if the songs are as good as most of them are, who needs a fancy cover.

Recent Songs (1979)
So passing swifly over the aforementioned Death of a Ladies' Man we come next to Recent Songs. This feels like a more grown up record (and Cohen was forty five by now), with its strings and eastern influences. It's smoother, but there's still drama, particularly in The Gypsy Wife and Ballad of the Absent Mare, and the lusher arrangement actually seems to bring out the bleakness more in my favourite track on here, The Guests. Although this is an album I enjoy listening to, I find I don't have much more to say about it.

Various Positions (1984)
Strange to say, this is another album that's quite undemanding to listen to (despite the inspiration for at least some of the tracks) and one without anything that really leaps out at you - except for the fact that it includes Hallelujah, which must be his most covered song, so others have clearly seen a lot in it. And yes, it is my favourite on this album, and yes, this is the best version I have heard, but good as the whole thing is, relatively speaking, this still constitutes a bit of a doldrums.

I'm Your Man (1988)
I this was his most popular album to date, but I wouldn't put it among my favourites. I've always liked the swooping madness of First We Take Manhattan but it's pipped by the lush valediction of Take This Waltz

The Future (1992)
To be honest, we might as well stop here. I won't keep you in suspense. Against some stiff competition this is my favourite album, and in an even tighter race, most days Closing Time just beats Sing Another Song Boys as my overall favourite track. It's the other one I will drop everything and stop to listen to, then skip back and listen to it again. It's a serious contender for Music To Be Played At My Funeral. It's raucous, and upbeat and chockfull of regret and thwartedness (there really should be a better noun for that). Other tracks I love on this album are Waiting for the Miracle, Democracy, and the closing instrumental Tacoma Trailer which is an inspired way to finish an album which was by far his most overtly political.

And that's as many as I managed to listen to today. What this exercise has made me realise is that it is all rather miserable (and angry, disappointed, frustrated &c. ...) but none the worse for that. We need soemone to express that for us sometimes and it is still my considered opinion that no one does it better.

Cups of tea so far this February: 123
Online meetings so far this February: 30

1 comment:

  1. Personally I love Cohen's work so much that listening to even the most supposedly depressing of his songs cheers me up immensely. It really annoys me when people assume I'm feeling down if i choose to listen to his songs. Suzanne is my favourite, probably because my dad sung it to me as a lullaby when i was small. I now sing it to my son.