|Leonard Cohen - Songs of Leonard Cohen|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by John Sutton-Smith|
|Friday, 01 June 2007|
release year: 2007
original release year: 1967
reviewed by: John Sutton-Smith
Canadian poet and singer Leonard Cohen is an undeniable musical treasure whose Zen poetics and husky observations have transcended generations, for more than 50 years in print and 40 in song, since the release of his first still- monumentally contemporary album, Songs of Leonard Cohen.
Of Cohen’s first three albums, all of which have just been released in modestly expanded versions by Columbia/Legacy, it is hard to distinguish between them in terms of merit. All have indelible, iconic classic songs of folk poetry – “Bird on the Wire” and “Story of Isaac,” to name just a pair from the exquisite second album “Songs from a Room,” or the mind-bending melodrama of “Dress Rehearsal Rag” on the third, tougher and more mettlesome “Songs of Love and Hate,” from which also comes one of his most-loved poetic romantic laments, “Famous Blue Raincoat.” Deeply layered and yet starkly emotional, it is still perhaps one of Cohen’s most accomplished observations.
But it all began in early 1967 with Songs of Leonard Cohen, when legendary A&R man John Hammond (Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Pete Seeger, Aretha, Dylan, Springsteen and more) signed Cohen. He was already an acclaimed writer with four books of poetry and two novels under his belt, as well as having the enthusiastic support of folk singers of the moment like Judy Collins, who had recorded his delicate ode “Suzanne.” The song became an early signature tune for Cohen and his own sparse and meditative version has become a modern folk standard since leading off this remarkable debut album, which travels an uncompromising course through heart and spirit, conscience and redemption.
Cohen’s reputation as a singer/songwriter was firmly established by Songs of Leonard Cohen, and it is not difficult to hear why. Many of his most enduring songs stemmed from these sessions, and this first album remains in the pantheon of great folk-pop, up there with Blonde on Blonde, Astral Weeks and Tea for the Tillerman.
The love songs are never simple, yet “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” “So Long Marianne” and “Sister of Mercy,” all tinged with sadness and regret, touch a depth of romance and insight rarely found in pop music. Classics all, they sound as powerful today as they ever did. Cohen’s younger voice is still deep and resonant, but there is a sense of hopefulness in the way his conversational tone can caress the words around the melody.
Two of the major works here are almost surreal tales of love and betrayal: “Master Song” is a dense, seductive ballad and “Stranger Song,” laden in rich imagery and cloaked in regret, remains one of Cohen’s finest works.
Producer John Hammond fell ill partway through the recording sessions and staff producer John Simon (who incidentally produced – uncredited – Big Brother & the Holding Company’s debut Cheap Thrills) took over.
Nonetheless, it is a welcome revival from Columbia/Legacy for an album that not only has stood the test of time and become an essential part of any credible record collection, but whose influence has grown exponentially on generations of punks, Gen X’ers, garage poets and romantic brooders of all stripes.
The extra songs on all three albums are a little disappointing in their paucity, two tracks at the most per disc, and not including a number of early tracks and out-takes that avid Cohen fans have surely been anticipating on a re-release campaign for an artist of this magnitude. The two songs included here on the first album – “Store Room” and “Blessed is the Memory” – have survived from the original Hammond sessions, and have never before been released. Though not significant additions to the canon, they offer an intriguing taste of Cohen’s early days, but longtime Cohen fans may be wondering where the early recording of “Priests” (reworked also by Judy Collins, among others) has gone, along with other songs from that time. More of that material would certainly have been welcome.
Encased in a booklet-like package, never-before-seen photos plus new liner notes from journalist Anthony de Curtis are also a pleasant and somewhat informative addition, but without adding anything particularly new or revelatory to contextualize Cohen’s rich and lustrous history.
The magic here is in the original songs, and that is really more than enough.
The first three albums found Cohen still in the acoustic world of purist folk –
long before Phil Spector and the synthesizers of some of his later work – and John Simon’s simple, unadorned arrangements, mostly Cohen’s delicate and accomplished guitar work, remains duly sensitive and subordinate to the songs.
The considerable mystical energy found on these tracks reflects Cohen’s uncanny vocal presence, and the remastered recordings are true and unvarnished; in fact, his songs may not have been recorded this beautifully since.