Leonard Cohen: Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), Songs from a Room (1969), Songs of Love and Hate (1971), (Reissues) [Columbia Legacy]

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Rating: 10.0

“When I left they were sleeping, I hope you run into them soon. Don’t turn on the lights, you can read their address by the moon.” Leonard Cohen is primarily a poet, not some kind of rock and roll juggernaut. Several volumes of his poetry were published, along with two novels, years before he recorded his first album, released in 1967. His first three records are essential folk masterpieces that are a world apart from his later recordings,† where he would begin to stray musically. The reissues are a blinding example of Leonard Cohen at his best. His first album is a highly literate work of sheer brilliance that paved the way for the also near perfect second and third albums. They have just been given the remastering treatment and the re-releases come in classy hardback book packaging. As one would expect, included are the lyrics, which were criminally missing from the earlier cd versions of Songs From a Room and Songs of Love and Hate. There are also a few unreleased tracks thrown in to make us suckers once again purchase albums that we already owned.

Songs of Leonard Cohen is a tremendous album. It arrived the same year that Pink Floyd, The Doors, The Beatles and The Zombies were all creating elaborate psychedelic opuses. In contrast, Leonard Cohen was taking his poetry to another level by recording it with only his acoustic guitar and a rather low key ensemble for accompaniment. The music is somber throughout the entire album. His finger picking guitar style follows a similar path all the way through, acting as a perfect net to hold the literary passages together. Some of the record (“The Master Song,” “Teachers,” “The Stranger Song”) is quite morose as those who are uninterested in Cohen are usually quick to dismiss him as being far too depressing, but there are also some joyous revelations such as “So Long, Marianne” and “Hey, That’s no Way to Say Goodbye.” This is perhaps Leonard Cohen at his best. There is a diverse range of moods spread across the original album’s ten songs. It is far too easy to fall head first into this record. “Your master took you traveling, well at least that’s what you said. And now do you come back to bring your prisoner wine and bread.”

Songs from a Room is the darkest that Mister Cohen ever got, although it does contain the renowned and often covered “Bird on a Wire.” It actually opens and closes on a fairly optimistic level, but in between, Leonard Cohen’s darkest hours were exposed. Among the subjects explored in the lyrics are religious manipulation (“Story of Issac”), heroin (“The Butcher”), and suicide (“Seems so Long Ago, Nancy”). This record might top his first one depending on your mood and the day of the week. I can never choose between the two. Musically, the frame work is rather similar to the first album, but the songs are a little more stark with the inclusion of more organ and the exclusion of female vocals. “You who build these altars now to sacrifice these children, you must not do it anymore. A scheme is not a vision and you never have been tempted by a demon or a god.” To this day, he still seems to be fighting in some delicate realm between romance, desperation and disgust.

Songs of Love and Hate is not quite as bleak as its predecessor, but it does give it a run for it’s money. The opening track “Avalanche” begins with the lyric, “I stepped into an avalanche. It covered up my soul.” Is there a better, more concise way of expressing despair? Of course there is also “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” a song in which Cohen sounds as though he has reached the end of his tether, “That’s not the electric light, my friend. That is your vision growing dim,” he exclaims midway through the track. Interspersed are, as the title suggests, some love songs, though in altering forms such as the simple “Love Calls You by Your Name” and “Joan of Arc,” a tale about his sexual fantasies concerning a religious icon. One more example of his lyrical talent comes from “Avalanche,” where Cohen spews out the final line “Do not dress in those rags for me. I know you are not poor. You don’t love me quite so fiercely now when you know that you are not sure.” On second thought, this album is right up there with the first two. It is that difficult to choose a favorite.

Leonard Cohen has had a profound influence on both writers and musicians. His first four albums are epic works and, for the most part, entirely untouchable. His last truly great record (the fourth) entitled “New Skin for the Old Ceremony,” is supposed to be reissued later this year and although he began to embrace more diverse musical styles in that album, it still ranks about as high as these three. Seek these diamonds if you are interested and/or not familiar. During this period in his career, he is probably my favorite artist over everyone else.

-Andrew Boe

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