Leonard Cohen: Singer of Mercy

by Brian W. Fairbanks

 

On October 31, 1988, a brooding figure dressed in black and resembling a handsomer Dustin Hoffman stopped in Texas to tape an hour long segment of Austin City Limits, a popular public television concert series showcasing country music. In a sense, the producers were playing trick or treat with the audience on this Halloween night. The music to be played that evening wasn't country, even though the guest artist recorded an album or two in Nashville. Instead of twangy guitars and ten gallon hats, the audience witnessed a musical marriage of Bob Dylan and Charles Aznavour (or maybe Paul Simon and Jacques Brel).

In the following months, as the program aired in different cities throughout the United States, the enthusiastic feedback from the often finicky fans of country music took the producers by surprise. A priest who saw the show when it aired in Cleveland, Ohio praised the broadcast as not only the best Austin City Limits he had seen, but the best hour he had ever spent in front of the television, period. Mainstream America had met Leonard Cohen and they loved him.

Born in Montreal, Canada in 1934, Cohen was already an acclaimed poet as well as a novelist of some note when Judy Collins recorded his haunting ballad 'Suzanne' in 1966. A year later, Columbia Records released his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, and though there would be further collections of poetry, Cohen was now a pop star, a singer/songwriter with the kind of voice that could be excused with the admonition, 'Well, he did write the song, so why shouldn't he sing it, too.'

Cohen's style found favor in Europe, but it may have been too subdued for America where he maintained a small but faithful following.  Introspective and concerned more often than not with love of the gone wrong or unrequited kind, the dominant mood of Cohen's work is melancholic, hence his reputation as the 'poet laureate of pessimism.' The opening lines of 'Famous Blue Raincoat' ('It's four in the morning, the end of December') set a definite mood, one that is less then cheery, but far from being 'music to slit your wrists by' as one critic claimed, Cohen's best songs are the perfect companion for the lonely and broken-hearted. Like a shoulder to cry on, or an outstretched hand offering a lifeline of hope, they are warm and comforting. As he sings in 'Sisters of Mercy,' 'I've been where you're hanging, I think I can see how
you're pinned.'

Cohen's limited vocal abilities only lent credibility to his earlier recordings. The sometimes whiney monotone of his tenor voice suggested this was not a 'performer' acting out a script punctuated with musical notes, but a poet with feelings too intense for words alone to express. Later, as age and one cigarette too many took their toll, Cohen's voice actually improved. By 1988's I'm Your Man, his voice had morphed into a sensual baritone as thrilling as Barry White's but with considerably more class.

That album also displayed something his critics consistently overlook: his sense of humor.  True, it tends to be dark and fatalistic, but it is there, most notably in the self-deprecating lyrics of 'I Can't Forget' ('I can't forget but I can't remember what') and 'Tower of Song' ('Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey.  I ache in the places where I used to play').  It also reminded them of Cohen's ability to attract world class musicians to his cause.  John Bilezikjian's ode playing on 'Everybody Knows' is as spooky as it is tasteful, and Jennifer Warnes' beautiful falsetto on 'Take This Waltz' will break whatever piece of your heart that the song leaves untouched. 

I'm Your Man and his appearance on Austin City Limits improved his commercial standing in America, and now Columbia/Legacy have given Cohen a place in their
popular "essential" series, alongside Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand, and other veteran artists
on the Sony owned label.

The Essential Leonard Cohen is a two-disc, 31 song set compiled by the artist himself, and it offers a generous sampling of Cohen's work through the years, stretching back to his debut album for the dreamy 'Suzanne,' to four selections from last year's Ten New Songs. Also included are no less than six of the eight cuts from I'm Your Man, still his most accessible album, and perhaps his most conspicuously 'musical.'

It speaks well of Cohen's work that even though he has only released ten studio albums in more than three decades of recording, this collection still leaves out some of his truly 'essential' work. The absence of 'Last Year's Man' and 'Joan of Arc' from 1971's Songs of Love and Hate, arguably his most affecting album, prevent this collection from being truly definitive. No matter. Once Leonard Cohen has seduced your ears you will likely seek out everything he has committed to tape anyway. Like the man says, there 'Ain't No Cure For Love.'

Brian W. Fairbanks
Entertainment Editor

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