Friday, February 19, 2016

On Leonard Cohen's Early Work

I like Leonard Cohen a lot, but as I realised a few days ago, my knowledge of his repertoire is basically limited to the post-MTV era. The first song of his that I ever heard was Everybody Knows from I'm Your Man, and that track is pretty representative of how I think of Mr Cohen: a deep, earthy voice preaching messages of doom over several layers of synthesisers and, more recently, a lush mini-orchestra of rock and classical instrumentation. I've got Live in London, so I'm familiar with older tracks like Suzanne and So Long, Marianne and Bird on the Wire, but the versions I know were sung by a much older man than the Leonard Cohen who initially wrote and recorded them.

Besides, I bet the original version of So Long, Marianne didn't feature Dino Soldo and his SWEET HARMONICA SOLOS.

I listened to 1971's Songs of Love and Hate for the first time earlier this week, and it came as something of a shock. The voice is just about identifiable as Cohen's, but it sounds like he hasn't truly grown into it yet; I was speaking to Josh (a friend of mine and a big Leonard Cohen fan) about this last Sunday, and he agreed that Len is just one of those people who makes more sense as an old person. Cohen is to music what Ian McKellen is to acting; he's so good at playing wise, wizened wizards and elderly gentlemen that it's kind of bizarre to imagine him working in the same field when he was young.

And yet, somehow, Songs of Love and Hate exists.

The music actually isn't quite as stripped-back as I expected of these relatively early cuts; there are drums and strings and even some singing children who pop up a couple of times. But while Cohen '71 (who recorded SoLaH around the time of his 36th birthday - the man is twice that age now, and then some) does occasionally emit something resembling the basso profundo voice of God he possesses today, there's something about this set of songs that feels very different, very distinct from the mid- and late-career stuff with which I'm better acquainted.

For one thing, the singer of these songs has a willingness to push his voice beyond its modest limits that I don't recall noticing in any of Len's later LPs. Sometimes this is a very good thing, as in the rousing climax of Sing Another Song, Boys:


And sometimes the results are just kind of startling, as on Diamonds in the Mine:

For whatever reason, this was the first track I listened to after purchasing SoLaH. He sounds for the whole four minutes like he's about to throw up.

It's not just his delivery, though. Leonard Cohen sounds altogether more human on this album, more like a mortal man and less like a deity from some higher plane of is existence. I'm used to hearing him mutter divine truths; I'm used to listening as he unspools rich, decadent poetry and reveals things about the nature of life and love that no earthly creature could ever know. Even when his songs were filled with death and devastation and horror, he himself seemed infallible, and somehow above it all.

And yet here he is on Dress Rehearsal Rag, staring at the unshaven singer in the hotel mirror and wrestling desperately with thoughts of suicide. Here he is on Last Year's Man, feeling washed-up and out of ideas. Here he is on Famous Blue Raincoat, cuckolded and caught in some silly love triangle and sounding, if I may say so, kind of bitter about it.

It's odd, and occasionally unnerving, to hear this side of Leonard Cohen. The experience is not unlike finding a diary that your dad wrote when he was a teenager, and reading about all of his unrequited crushes and the tempestuous sadness that eventually settled and hardened into the sturdy, all-knowing benevolence you know now. I know some people who prefer Leonard Cohen's early work to the synthy stuff he made in the '80s, and while I'm not sure I'll ever count myself among them, I am glad that I took this little sojourn into the rearmost reaches of his back catalogue; Songs of Love and Hate is, by and large, an excellent record, and if nothing else, it's nice to know that even Leonard Cohen was a regular (albeit extraordinarily talented) human being once upon a time.

1 comment:

  1. Loved this, as someone who comes to Leonard Cohen from pretty well exactly the opposite angle. His early stuff still blows me away (and I regard SoLaH as his masterpiece); I think 'I'm Your Man' is fantastic - but I've been less engaged with him as he's gradually reverted to Cohen the poet rather than Cohen the singer/songwriter. I always thought it was interesting how he got into the synths just as 'unplugged' became the big new thing.

    I'd add that 'Sing Another Song Boys' is a slightly amazing oddity - almost as if he's dropped in this single track (in his entire career) to say: 'look - you know what? I'd have made an incredible rock star as well, if I'd have wanted.'

    Anyway - really enjoyed browsing your archives - thanks.