A Tribute to Leonard Written by Jonathan Moss
“Yo! Fuck You! Review!”- Alex Alex
Now that we’ve had our moment of levity let’s talk about Leonard Cohen, who, of course, recently passed away. As someone who listened to “Songs of Love and Hate” a lot while depressed I couldn’t help but take his death somewhat hard. Unfortunately I had college that day, so I wasn’t able to spend the day moping and listening to his first four albums on repeat. It was a strange day, one of my friends from college sent me a message while I was waiting for my train expressing their own grief over it. There was a bit of levity in college as I explained who Leonard Cohen was by saying “the guy who wrote the song in Shrek”.
Of course, Hallelujah is a good song but his first album is where it’s at! The album has such a curious vibe, Leonard’s elegantly picked and strummed guitar playing, all the ornate instruments (flutes, mandolins, accordions, violins) backing it up to create this almost hazy, dream popish atmosphere: his dreary, haunting plain mostly spoken vocals and the deep melancholia of the whole thing. It may be a folk album, but you can easily hear the seeds of bands like Swans and Godflesh in it. Fuck, with the darkness of it you could even argue it a proto-neofolk album, though I’m sure some Jewish people would take exception to this. I want to go back to Leonard’s guitar playing, for a man known for his lyrics (which, to avoid misunderstanding I will clarify now are great) he was sure a hell of a guitar player. Of course, not in terms of technical skill but if you give a shit about that we have fundamentally different ways of enjoying music. No, what I’m talking about is his style. The lulling, hypnotic vibe of it. You could remove Leonard’s vocals from it and the guitar playing would still convey the melancholy of the album. Okay, probably not as well but hyperbole is a good tool. Anyway, to use another good tool- simile, I’ll say the guitar playing for me conjures the image of a an elegant yet decaying mansion in a rural area abandoned by time, possibly with squatters.
“Suzanne” is a very strong way to open the album. If you’re not paying full attention you won’t realise what a powerful song it is, especially the way it builds up. The crescendo from the minimalistic verse to the chorus made more impactful by an orchestra and cooing female choir culminating with the lyric “for you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind” is in a lot of ways more emotionally walloping than the crescendos that Godspeed You! Black Emperor excel at. The simple and repetitive guitar line running through the song is impacting in another way, how catchy it is, albeit in a subdued kind of manner. This, along with the references to Jesus in the lyrics, gives the song a very religious vibe, but not the dispassionate religion commonly practised, the personal existentialist religion preached by philosophers like Soren Kierkegaard.
After “Suzanne” the album gets into a comfortable groove, a calming groove. You could call this album lullabies for clinical depressives, in fact! “Master Song” has more pretty, spidery guitar playing, and a distant sounding horn sound which gives it a sense of grandeur, amongst other odd instruments. In comparison to “Suzanne” it has a slightly more sinister vibe, not sure why this is, the lyrics don’t really convey it. Maybe it’s the sweeping string arrangements.There’s also what sounds to me like an electric guitar which would fit in the context of a surf rock song! Probably a melancholy one, maybe “The Death of a Surfer” or something like that.
I know Leonard himself didn’t like it, but I love the production style of this album. The horn sound as I said on “Master Song” is fantastic and “Winter Lady” has some lovely piano chords which have a haunting vibe, like a grand piano playing of its own accord in a haunted house, but you’re not scared, you’re comforted. A lovely oboe (?) melody as well, like a fucking river full of molten gold. The guitar playing in the chorus has a twanging Eastern vibe, almost psychedelic. This on the whole serves to give the song an ornate, stately feel.
“The Stranger Song” is a rougher song by comparison, with a gruff guitar pattern, minimalist production and lyrics about drug dealers. There is a string arrangement, but it’s subtle, and mostly serves to enhance the atmosphere of the song, rather than show off on its own merits. The song seems kind of intense, just the guitar melody repeated over and over again with an agitated severity and Leonard repeating “he was just some Joseph looking for a manger”. Spooky song.
“The Sisters of Mercy” is a classic Cohen song, with a pretty, melodic picked guitar line and sweet vocals. There’s a nostalgic sounding gypsy accordion, odd pipe instruments that would find favour with Tom Waits in his weird period, and dainty, chiming percussion. This pairs well with “So Long, Marianne” which is the poppiest song on the album, with choir girls enthusiastically belting out the title of the song with Leonard in the chorus. The strummed guitar line is very warm and catchy, and paired well with a tuneful mandolin giving the song a sort of romance. There’s something very ebullient about it, it’s not depressing at all, though it is sorta melancholy. It’s possible the song had an influence on jangle pop, it sounds like it did. The accordion in it gives it a nice eastern folk vibe as well. So, it’s a layered, fun song. Definitely picks up the pace of the album and helps give it variety.
Most of the songs on the second side of the album seem faster paced than the ones on the first side, outside of “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” which is a slow pretty folker, and the last song, which i’ll get to later. “Stories of the Street” isn’t as fast paced but it’s still imbued with a certain dark enthusiasm. It has a pretty tense vibe to it, with fast guitar playing and an anxious horn (?) sound. Something that sounds like it was blown, wikipedia just says “Eastern instruments”. “Teachers” has very fast paced picked guitar playing, more mysterious twangy Eastern instrumentation and vocals from Leonard that kinda sound like they influenced Lou Reed. It has a seedy, severe sound. I enjoy it, its almost punkish!
“One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” is a great way to end the album, smoothly bringing us back to depressive lullaby land. One of the things I enjoy about Leonard’s vocals on the album is how nice they sound, and that’s probably because of the weary, defeated tone they have. On this song Leonard curbs that a bit, he drunkenly yelps along with pretty whistling! Gives you hope for him. This contrasts well with the subdued vocal melody of the song, pretty whistling and hypnotic guitar playing.
So, criticisms? Well, the album is pretty samey, but it never really seems to be repetitive, because Leonard makes the songs stick out, adorning them all with individual hooks, whilst John Simon gives them nice different backing instrumentation. So, all the songs are individual, but you do have to pay attention to this or it will sound repetitive as hell. It’s a great vibe though so it really shouldn’t matter either way.
Anyway, you should have heard this album already, and if you haven’t, do.