27 December 1967
This is my final On This Day article for 2019. Album releases are few and far between in the latter half of December and so we reach back 52 years to Leonard Cohen’s unassuming folk debut from 1967. Prior to this album, Cohen had achieved some recognition as a writer of both poetry and prose, but this was the 33-year-old’s first foray into recorded music.
I will admit to being far more familiar with Cohen’s later work. The scant exposure to his earlier material that I received in my twenties left me unmoved, with its sparse acoustic arrangements and his soft, vulnerable voice. I became a fan with 1992’s The Future and familiarized myself with his back catalog in the intervening decades. It took time for me to appreciate that he is the rare singer who allows his lyrics to speak for themselves without feeling the need to wrench overwrought emotion from each verse or refrain.
Everything about this album exists to serve his words. The guitar work is rudimentary, the other instrumentation almost incidental. Cohen is first and foremost a poet, and this is as much an LP of recorded poetry as it is folk or pop music. In fact, Cohen speaks as much as sings on these songs, only the slightest inflection or modulation in his voice.
I can’t be objective about his work. He is one of those minor gods whose body of work is, for me, a cohesive whole. And while I have favorites among his catalog, there is nothing of his that fails to reach something deep within me.
That qualification made, some of his best-known, best-loved songs are part of this debut. “Suzanne,” originally recorded by Judy Collins, is the lead track and was Cohen’s first single. It has since been covered myriad times and is instantly familiar, even to those who might be unaware of its provenance. The album also includes his first ode to his perennial muse, Marianne Ihlen in “So Long Marianne,” a song that always makes me a little misty.
Other favorites from Songs… include “Sisters Of Mercy,” “Master Song,” and “The Stranger Song,” as well as the bittersweet “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye.” And while I may refer to them as favorites, there isn’t a song on this record that I haven’t come to love over the past 20-or-so years.
Some critics, especially in his earlier years, considered his music cynical or pessimistic. Listening to Songs Of Leonard Cohen it’s hard to fault them for early judgments, especially since he’d yet to embrace his dark and self-deprecating sense of humor in his music. But alongside pessimism there is also a somewhat incongruous hopefulness that seeps into his work which, while perhaps not quite optimistic, certainly signals a refusal to surrender to the darkness.
It has frequently been the case that the artists I find the most challenging are those that become the most rewarding. When first hearing Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and Depeche Mode, I knew there was something worthwhile with which I wasn’t connecting. So, too, with Leonard Cohen. With each of those acts I would set them aside for months, maybe years, before going back to revisit their work, see if I could hear what I’d previously missed. And often it was one album or one song that would flip a switch and illuminate their whole catalog in a way that I could fully embrace and appreciate it. Some people aren’t willing to put in that work and, for some listeners, certain artists will never resonate. I feel fortunate to have learned to enjoy Leonard Cohen’s fifty years of music, and it all starts here.
Thank you for reading!
Please click the follow button and, if you enjoy what you’re reading, like and share it with a friend. As always, leave a comment and let me know what you agree on and what I screwed up.
Until next time, keep those discs spinning.