Woke today to the news that, on the 7th November, Leonard Cohen passed away at the age of 82. The Canadian singer, songwriter, poet and novelist had a long and and varied career that saw him pen some of the most revered songs ever put to tape. Taking his colours from the darker end of the palette his were songs that were often better known when sung by others but, in my own opinion, that merely highlighted the quality of his writing. It took a lot to make an arse of such great source material.
While not a huge fan, there’s perhaps just a couple of his albums in my collection (when you factor in that he released 14 studio albums that’s hardly representative), but few could argue that Mr Cohen was an excellent songwriter. Thanks to “Hallelujah” (on which I see Jim at Music Enthusiast has just posted) he’s probably one of the most covered / heard songwriters there is and yet it’s likely few have heard his own version of the song.
Some time ago on a blog almost now forgot I dropped a post citing Songs of Love and Hate as one of my 100 Essential Albums. I’ll share that post here, now, as it seems somewhat fitting:
I know it’s been said before and there’s no way it won’t be said again, and I also know that I’m likely to incur the odd spiteful comment or grimace from those true musos and aficionados that like to put things up on pedestals when I say that I concur with the sentiment that Leonard Cohen writes great songs, for other people to sing.
It sounds awfully popularist to say that Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” is the better (if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s not my favourite JB song) and somewhat cliché to say I’d take Concrete Blonde’s version of “Everybody Knows (and I, surely cannot be alone in that) and that “Tower of Song” is better served by Nick Cave’s vocals. That’s not to say I don’t like Mr Cohen, far from it – nobody can question the man’s ability. It’s just that sometimes his voice doesn’t give the songs the life which that of another artist can breath into it.
That being said, there isn’t, however, a single song on Songs Of Love And Hate that I think is better suited to anyone but Leonard. From the moment his voice pours over the tumbling strings of “Avalanche” to the final “la” of “Joan of Arc”, this album, to my mind (and, hey, what’s this blog all about anyway?) is the perfect match for his voice.
Even “Diamonds In The Mine”, which often gets held up as a ‘what the hell is he doing with his voice?’ works for me – it brings to mind one of Bob’s bitter, angst-ridden, rants. While his voice isn’t in it’s natural key there’s no questioning the sincerity of the emotion it bellows.
The fact that he barely touches “Dress Rehearsal Rag” live because he found it so depressing just speaks volumes. The album itself is pretty damn far from cheerful, his voice aches with regret and despair throughout and for someone so seemingly at home with the bleak to come up with something that he himself finds depressing… I have to take my hat off to it.
For me thought there are two songs that define this album and warrant it’s inclusion on this list – “Avalanche” and, of course, “Famous Blue Raincoat”. The number of times I’ve found myself singing ‘New York is cold but I like where I’m living’ or ‘it’s 4 in the morning, the end of December’ and left them hanging in the air because, frankly, that song is damn near perfect in both it’s lyrics, the way it delivers such power from such relatively straightforward wordplay and a nagging melody. Which is why I love “Avalanche” too. A tumbling, cascade of guitar strung notes plunging you straight away into Cohen’s voice.
While it doesn’t contain his best songs, Songs Of Love And Hate does contain the best songs for himself.
To add a little more to this post I’ll include a couple of other favourites from Mr Cohen’s tower of song: