• Phil Hale

Album Analysis | Leonard Cohen - Songs of Leonard Cohen

50 years later, Cohen's debut album still defies the ageing process and offers meditations on life for a new generation.

Songs of Leonard Cohen, released in 1967, is the debut album of the Canadian poet and novelist, Leonard Cohen. Cohen was 33 when the album was released, an age where youthful anxiety had been replaced with a mature angst.

Cohen enters a new arena here in his first musical installment of a lifelong quest to transmute through his art both the pain and joy of his life into a narrative that he could tolerate, which proved to be an antidote to his depression. It foreshadows the themes of love lost and found, spirituality, vulnerability, uncertainty and salvation that Cohen would revisit throughout his career.

To establish our expectations, a dour looking Cohen stares at us from the cover, and he's not offering comfort. Flip the album over and a different story emerges, the image of the Anima Sola, a woman surrounded by flames breaking free from chains, adds a counterpoint to the doleful eyes of Cohen and is echoed in the devotional backing vocals on several of the tracks.

Cohen’s demeanor in the photograph also reflects his desire for a simple sound to the album, a desire thwarted in part by producer John Simon who sprinkled strings and horns throughout the songs, adding a sonic quality to the recording that it is now impossible to imagine the album without.

Opening with Suzanne, Cohen pulls off the trick of walking the listener to the edge of an expectation of a physical encounter before steering us to the contemplation of a love deeper and more resonate than that, ethereal and untainted by the need for physical consummation,

“For you've touched her perfect body with your mind”

Cohen’s precise singing, backing vocals and instrumentation that gently supports his guitar playing, get to the heart of the song rolling it by us like the river where he meets Suzanne.

On ‘So Long Marianne”, one of Cohen’s greatest songs, he repeats the feat, letting us into his carefree yet committed love affair before leading us to the realization that the relationship must end. The innocent intimacy of the first verse gives way to a darker vision in the second.

Come over to the window, my little darling,

I'd like to try to read your palm.

I used to think I was some kind of Gypsy boy,

Before I let you take me home.

Your letters, they all say that you're beside me now,

Then why do I feel alone?

I'm standing on a ledge and your fine spider web

Is fastening my ankle to a stone.

a regression into a stifling co-dependency that he must escape but not before imploring his lover to join him in embracing the memories.

Oh, so long, Marianne

It's time that we began to laugh

And cry and cry and laugh about it all again.

Cohen's vocals soar here more than elsewhere on the album, supplemented by backing vocals that have a child choir quality elevating the song to a place of sublime beauty.

Elsewhere, Cohen is prepared to be more impressionistic on Stories of the Streets and Teachers, and to show a more poetic sensibility laced with humor in One of Us Cannot be Wrong, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Lennon and Dylan's sparring with Norwegian Wood and Fourth Time Around.

Cohen is also ready to expose his need to detach from a relationship with a finality and fatality as the subject of Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye and receives a much less affectionate farewell than Marianne. Cohen would later describe the writing of this song as "I am in the midst of a bitter quarrel with a blonde woman. The song is half-written in pencil but it protects us as we maneuver, each of us, for unconditional victory. I am in the wrong room. I am with the wrong woman.”

Cohen’s near obsession with love and lust continues in what can be seen as a couplet of songs. Winter Lady finds the narrator pleading for a one night stand while The Stranger Song is a warning to a woman that men are weak and looking for comfort and shelter but once given these things will depart, suffocated by what they once sought. The same man trying to convince the Winter Lady to “stay awhile, until the night is over” is capable of a deeper deception to get what he wants. Cohen perhaps recognizes this potential in himself and feels a duty to warn.

Sisters of Mercy, written in one sitting as he watched two stranded backpackers sleep in his hotel bed is a rare example of Cohen working on a “first thought, best thought” basis as opposed to his “last thought, best thought” creative philosophy. Given a lilting melody matching the simplicity of the lyrics the song explores the idea that by their presence these girls have given Cohen a gift, mainly the gift of the song itself. By Cohen’s standards it's uncomplicated but he cannot resist a detour into a sexual cul-de-sac at the conclusion:

And you won't make me jealous if I hear that they sweetened your night:

We weren't lovers like that and besides it would still be alright,

We weren't lovers like that and besides it would still be alright.

Master Song is the most fascinating song on the album, a love triangle in which the players identities are deliberately obscured by Cohen, a trinity that delivers only alienation. The song is cloaked in a shroud of ambiguity and bleakness, the Master could be a deity, a higher self, a third person, Cohen doesn't feel the need to explain. It is marbled with sexual imagery, she will kneel by his bed that they have 'polished', her shirt is undone, and meditations on power and vulnerability,

I believe that you heard your master sing

While I was sick in bed,

I'm sure that he told you everything

I must keep locked away in my head.

Your master took you traveling,

Well at least that's what you said,

And now do you come back to bring

Your prisoner wine and bread?

This track and album is Cohen announcing himself as a songwriter and performer of special talent uncompromising in his determination to, in the later words of his son Adam, “marshall language” to do his bidding. Today, Songs of Leonard Cohen still proves to be an extraordinary collection of songs that have retained their power in the fifty years since their creation.

Listen to Songs of Leonard Cohen on Spotify here.

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