Songs of Leonard Cohen / Songs from a Room / Songs of Love and Hate
B- / B+ / A+
eissuing albums you could already easily find in your local electronic supermarkets usually happens for less-than-ideal reasons; in Leonard Cohen's case, recent financial woes may well have prompted him to light a fire under Columbia's ass (or not, I really have no idea), but the thin, overly hushed mixes his early work has been saddled with ever since they were issued on CD make these a bit of a godsend regardless. Unfortunately much of his most impressive work (let me again urge you to check out 1977's Death of a Ladies' Man on behalf of many of us here at Stylus) awaits similar treatment, but Canada's best cynic has never actually made a bad record and there is at least one actual, dead-to-rights classic in this repolished trio.
Despite what the track selection of otherwise-competent compilations like 2002's The Essential Leonard Cohen might have you believe, 1967's Songs of Leonard Cohen is actually his weakest effort to date even if you don't like his highly polished and idiosyncratic 21st Century records. Which only makes sense for one of the rare musicians who has found middle and old age to his liking aesthetically as well as personally; his debut sounds almost painfully like what it was, the attempt of a good poet to get into what he thought was a higher paying gig.
The record is mostly lionized by people who have the sneaking suspicion that his only real talent lay in the lyrics, not performance or music, something he spent the rest of his career disproving (who else has made such masterful use of not one but two utterly distinct and powerfully off-putting voices during their career?). He's too colorless and removed on tracks like “Master Song” and yes, even “Sisters of Mercy,” and there's a reason songs like “Winter Lady” and “Teachers” are mostly forgotten. Cohen's off-kilter “la la la”s at the end of the closing “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” points the way forward to when he'll actually lose his shit on record to great effect, but much of The Songs of Leonard Cohen feels too tentative to really draw blood. The two decent but lackluster previously unissued bonus tracks only reinforce the impression, although at least his voice is starting to crack around the edges. There's a reason the Canadian dormroom staple is 1975's The Best of Leonard Cohen; it manages to distill from these first couple of records the moments that actually succeed as songs. The remaster here is solid but not revelatory, unless you needed reminding that Cohen's version of “Suzanne” really is a gorgeous thing.
1969's Songs from a Room improves by being starker, both in sound and sentiment. If his debut showed flashes of brilliance, this album actually coheres into something worth listening to from start to finish and the remastering here is the most improved of the three. Cohen relies repeatedly on softly twanging Jew's Harp on these songs and on the original CD issue it was hard to tell why he'd bothered; now it seems less like a bad joke and more like a crucial element. The standout by a mile is still his dour, mournful (and seemingly prescient) cover of the 1943 song “The Partisan” with its lovely French verse and spectral, sudden fadeout, but it seems as if Cohen was still working through his brain rather than his heart and his hands. Like Costello's Armed Forces Cohen experiments here with using various types of martial imagery to get at the emotional conflict he was constantly consumed with, but the madness, humor, and morbid self-awareness of his best work lurks in the back of Songs from a Room rather than springing out at the listener. The alternate versions of “Bird on the Wire” and “You Know Who I Am” that round out the reissue provide only mild interest unless you're a completist.
1971's Songs of Love and Hate, however, is the real deal from the second the stunning “Avalanche” envelops the listener, especially on headphones, and especially with the lusher sound of these remasters. Cohen's voice has deepened slightly, but as he'll show throughout the album not only had his range increased he'd started giving the type of vocal performance that his lyrics had always been worthy of. “Diamonds in the Mine” is Cohen grinning with blood on his teeth, “Dress Rehearsal Rag” his most self-lacerating performance, “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Love Calls You By Your Name” his most tender. For eight lengthy, dense (emotionally if not always sonically) tracks he never puts a foot wrong, and for the first time he sounds as if he is writing through catharsis rather than intellectual detachment. There's a reason Cohen has only played the incredibly powerful “Dress Rehearsal Rag” live a few times; like the monumental “Please Don't Pass Me By (A Disgrace)” from his Live Songs it's so shattering you're surprised he ever managed to record it at all.
Despite his reputation Leonard Cohen's music has always worked best when he's off-kilter, taking wild swings in all directions and letting a scarily plausible red-eyed desperation climb into his music. The idea that personal turmoil produces the best art certainly has plenty of counter-examples, but it seems to hold in Cohen's case; both Death of a Ladies' Man and Songs of Love and Hate are bitterly self-mocking and yet never self-centered, and the latter isn't as emotionally one dimensional as you might think; Cohen's shaggy, slightly leering grin on the cover is perfectly fitting for an album that includes something like “Sing Another Song, Boys,” recorded from the Isle of Wight festival and the first example from one of his LPs of Cohen's let's-keep-playing-while-the-world-collapses-around-us mode. The album is darker than anything he'd done before but far from depressive.
The reissue is rounded out by a 1968 version of “Dress Rehearsal Rag” from the Songs from a Room sessions which only reinforces how Cohen's performance improved in the 70s. Absent the masterfully creepy children's choir of the LP version but plus a compelling piano stomp this should be nearly the equal of the 1971 performance but Cohen's vocal is somehow bloodless. He sounds as if he's singing as someone else, and even if “Dress Rehearsal Rag” isn't autobiographical it (and much of Cohen's material) sounds strongest when the singer is able to sell it as if it is. That's a skill he didn't master until Songs of Love and Hate, and as a result that album leaves much of Cohen's work (and most other 'dark' singer-songwriter efforts) in the dust. His early work was impressive at the time, and still deserves attention today, but newcomers are urged to skip ahead to where Leonard Cohen really hits his stride. He would later sing of the crack in everything where the light gets in, and Songs of Love and Hate is where that crack starts showing in his own work.