Reviewed on this page:
Songs Of Leonard Cohen - Songs From A Room - Songs Of Love And
Hate - Live Songs - New Skin For The Old Ceremony - Various Positions -
I'm Your Man - The Future - Ten New Songs
A poet-turned-singer/songwriter who's never had much commercial success, Leonard Cohen is still something of a legend, the
hero of many a wine and pot-filled late 60s evening. No less a talent than Joni Mitchell acknowledges him as one of the
greatest lyricists of our time. I don't know about that, but his words sure are interesting. However, if you think
there's more to life than words, you may have a hard time getting into his work... another artist who never would have
happened if it hadn't been for Bob Dylan, Cohen really can't sing at all -
he's kind of like a beat poet reciting, only less passionate - and
his tunes are quite rudimentary. But if your tastes run to the cryptic, gloomy and poetic, you'll want to check Cohen out.
I'm still missing a couple of his albums, but I'm working on it, so stay tuned.
For far more useful information than you'll find on our site, wend your way to the
Bird On A Wire fan page. (DBW)
Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1968)
There are a lot of gripes one could make about this debut album.
The orchestrations (by John Simon) are mostly grandiose 60s cornball. The songs are all about
romance, from the pensive and creepy ("The Stranger Song," "One Of
Us Cannot Be Wrong") to the peppy and creepy ("So Long, Marianne").
The one song that's not creepy, "Hey That's No Way To Say
Goodbye," is a routine breakup song. There are no women discussed
here, mostly "girls" and a few "ladies." But his rumpled grandeur is hard to deny, and
"Sisters Of Mercy," "Teachers" and "One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong" are
particularly clever and strangely moving. (DBW)
Songs From A Room (1969)
This features "Bird On The Wire," perhaps Cohen's best-known
composition - it's certainly powerful, although personally I
prefer Edina's rendition on the TV show Absolutely Fabulous. The
producer this time is Bob Johnston, and he stays out of the way
more, and uses strings tastefully, for a smoother result.
Cohen still isn't much of a singer, and his 60s rugged
individualist brand of sexism is continually evident, starting with
the back cover photo of a chick in a towel doing his typing. But he
breaks away from love songs for a few larger comments that are
difficult to understand and generally worth the effort ("Story Of
Isaac," "A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes," "The Old Revolution"), and
his love songs are decent as well ("Seems So Long Ago, Nancy"). I
don't know why printed lyrics aren't included, considering that the
words are by far the most interesting part of the record. (DBW)
Songs Of Love And Hate (1970)
It's as if Cohen decided his earlier work had been overly cheerful, empty entertainment. There are almost no backing
instruments - Cohen's guitar is plucked about once a measure, and occasionally faint strings are heard - and he half-speaks
morose story-songs with no discernable melody or point ("Dress Rehearsal Rag"). It's so sluggish I had to check my turntable
to see if it was running at the right speed. The only time he sounds at all excited is on the nearly unlistenable "Diamonds
In The Mine," where he enunciates overdramatically, like a splenetic William Shatner. Almost every song is more than five
minutes long, and you're likely to have trouble staying awake. It's not a total washout, though, thanks to two of his best
known compositions, "Famous Blue Raincoat" and the single "Joan Of Arc."
No musicians or producer listed, at least on my LP copy.
Live Songs (1973)
Recorded in 1970 and 1972, this is a shockingly entertaining set. The countrified backing band - Bob Johnston (guitar,
organ, harmonica), Ron Cornelius (guitar), Charlie Daniels (bass, fiddle), Peter Marshal (bass), Elkin Fowler (banjo, guitar)
- gives the material a much needed boost, on early hits ("Bird On The Wire") and new songs ("Passing Through," a
Guthriesque folk tune) and even an improvised guitar quartet ("Improvisation"). Meanwhile, Cohen's delivery is focused
("You Know Who I Am") and sometimes enthusiastic: The thirteen minute singalong "Please Don't Pass Me By (A Disgrace)"
somehow never gets boring, with help from backing vocalists Jennifer Warnes, Aileen Fowler and Corlynn Hanney.
In a couple of places, though, he brings back the Love And Hate vibe, sounding so
depressed you're amazed he managed to drag himself out of bed ("Queen Victoria," recorded in a hotel room).
New Skin For The Old Ceremony (1974)
Easily Cohen's most musical album to date, partly because he actually pays some attention to melody ("Take This Longing"). But most of the credit is due to painstaking arrangements by producer
John Lissauer: prominent congas on "Lover Lover Lover" (a single) and "There Is A War"; space-age strings on "Field Commander Cohen";
a Dixieland combo on "Why Don't You Try"; slinky syncopated bass throughout. Lissauer never overdoes the gimmicks, though, as each mood complements the material. Cohen's a bit more
plain-spoken than usual, with looks at romance ranging from savage ("Is This What You Wanted") to plaintive ("I Tried To Leave You"), a clever comment on social divisions ("There Is A War"),
and an incisive look at the life of pop songwriters ("Chelsea Hotel #2"). But he hasn't lost his ability to get on your nerves:
the couplet in "A Singer Must Die" in which "the ladies get moist" at the sound of his voice is a bit much, and he ends on a sour note with an irritating, jokey remake of "Greensleeves"
("Leaving Green Sleeves").
Musicians include Lissauer (keyboards); Jeff Layton and Ralph Gibson (guitar); Erin Dickins, John Miller and Don Payne (bass), Roy Markowitz, Barry Lazarowitz and Armen Halburian (drums and percussion);
Gail Kantor and Janis Ian (backing vocals). (DBW)
Death Of A Ladies' Man (1977)
Produced and co-written by Phil Spector - midway between his late 50s hits and his early
00s killing of Lana Clarkson - this is a weary exercise in nostalgia (the 50s-style ballad "Paper-Thin Hotel").
Lyrically Cohen sticks to his usual variations on "I wanna fuck you but I'm overcome with ennui and fatigue"
- you get the feeling most of his songs wouldn't have been written if they'd had Viagra in those days - and he
pulls it off (lyrically at least) on "I Left A Woman Waiting" and "Paper-Thin Hotel," though he pushes way too hard on the title track,
a lifeless nine-minute ordeal. The singles were the I-vi-IV-V ballad "Memories" and the pseudo-calypso
"True Love Leaves No Traces." When Spector doesn't stick with his patented Wall Of Sound he
goes overboard with production gimmicks, putting ungodly amounts of reverb on "Iodine" and mixing Cohen so low
he's often less prominent than his backing vocalists.
The musicians are heavy session cats - Hal Blaine, Jim Keltner,
Albert Perkins, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, and vibraphonist Terry Gibbs.
Bob Dylan and Alan Ginsberg add vocals to "Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On" - the only energetic tune on the disc,
with a Bo Diddley beat and horn section.
Recent Songs (1979)
"The Guests" was the single. The cover painting (by Dianne Lawrence) makes him look more like Dustin Hoffman than ever.
Produced by Cohen and Henry Lewy; look for a review soon.
Field Commander Cohen: Tour Of 1979 (rec. 1979, rel. 2001)
Like Live Songs, dominated by songs from the first two albums - "So Long Marianne," "Hey That's No Way To Say Goodbye."
The band is fusion outfit Passenger. (DBW)
Various Positions (1984)
Fifteen years of cult status seems to have worn him out. Cohen sounds even more bored than usual here, reciting his
lyrics to overdone orchestral pop backing (courtesy of Lissauer, who lacks all his previous ambition). You can almost hear Cohen thinking "If Dylan did this, critics would love it." This
album is distinguished by Christian imagery ("Hallelujah") and
vocals by longtime champion Jennifer Warnes, but basically Cohen is
out of ideas: the tunes are more rudimentary than ever ("The
Captain"), he repeats his choruses endlessly ("The Law"), and the
lyrics are unimaginative ("If It Be Your Will"). Interesting only
as a study of economic pressures and artistic bankruptcy. (DBW)
I'm Your Man (1988)
I didn't think Cohen could go downhill from Various Positions, but I was wrong: like a musical terrorist, he seized
control of the producer's booth to inflict a set of crude synth-dominated tunes upon his hapless fans. His usual guitars and pop
trappings fall by the wayside, and Cohen even plays the synths himself;
on the album's amazingly low low point, he programs the drums as well ("Jazz Police," which uses the Star Trek theme as a bridge).
Warnes adds vocals, and Lenny Castro adds percussion, but the bland synth layers remain dominant.
The worst part is, a lot of the lyrics
are quite interesting, though sour and depressed as usual: the barb-tossing "First We Take Manhattan," the astonishing image collage
"Take This Waltz," and the refreshingly simple "I Can't Forget," which features live country-western instrumentation by the likes of
Vinnie Colaiuta and Sneaky Pete Kleinow.
His jaded romanticism is a bit much sometimes, as on "Ain't No Cure For Love" and the string o' clichés title track.
Worth checking out if you're a recording artist short on material, because I think several of these songs could work with more enthusiastic performances
and real arrangements.
The Future (1992)
A return to normal pop-rock production values, with a small army of producers: Cohen, Yoav Goren, Leanne Ungar, Steve Lindsey, Bill Ginn
and actor Rebecca De Mornay (!). Overall it's much more listenable, but the lyrics are irritatingly preachy ("Democracy") and calculated to shock
(title track). And then there's the jaded romanticism ("Waiting For The Miracle").
Probably the most lively cut is a bluesy version of Irving Berlin's "Always," with Dennis Herring and Dean Parks on guitar - the one other tune Cohen didn't write is the clichéd love song "Be For
Real" by Frederick Knight.
The songs are unbelievably overextended, with eight of the nine tracks running six minutes or longer, even the mind-bogglingly dull
instrumental "Tacoma Trailer." The large cast of musicians includes Bob Glaub, Lee
Sklar, Ed Greene, Freddie Washington, Paul
Jackson Jr., Greg Phillinganes among others.
"Waiting For The Miracle" and "The Future" were featured in the Oliver Stone film Natural Born Killers, bringing Cohen to his widest
audience to date, while "Democracy" and "Closing Time" were singles.
Cohen Live! (1994)
Strangely dominated by lengthy renditions of songs from Various Positions, with a healthy helping of early hits.
Ten New Songs (2001)
Co-written, co-sung and produced by longtime associate Sharon Robinson, who goes with a hermetic synth R&B approach that's not as grating as I'm Your Man
but is even duller ("A Thousand Kisses Deep"). Bob Metzger's guitar on the opening "In My Secret Life" is practically the only live instrument to be heard anywhere, and though the unchanging
drum programming/pulsing bass synth/atmospheric backing synth arrangements are clearly intended to be soothing, it gets aggravating very quickly. Robinson's faceless vocals are too loud to be background, but too bland to work as a duet.
Meanwhile, Cohen's vocals are gruffer and less melodic than ever - he really is just talking much of the time - while his Beat Generation hepcat references ("Boogie Street"), Bible-based obscurism ("By The Rivers Dark,"
"In The Land Of Plenty") and low-expectation romance ("You Have Loved Enough") increasingly lack resonance.
Despite all that, he does still have an enviable talent for soul-baring confession that doesn't seek refuge in rationalization or
topple over into self-pity, and as long as he can produce even a single gem like the abject yet assertive "That Don't Make It Junk," I'm glad Cohen's still in the game.
Dear Heather (2004)
Live In London (2009)
A two-CD set.
Old Ideas (2012)
Hey, that's no way to say goodbye.