Death of a ladies’ man – Leonard Cohen’s studio albums

I never had a simple relationship with Leonard Cohen and his music. Of course, I have always recognised the beauty of his songs and the fantastic character he was but he never touched me like artists such as Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen did for instance. Michka Assayas did in October ’16 one full week of programs on his songs and I must say it made me re-discover the work of this great man. His recent death was a shock as well although one could only see that he was very active until his last days and that he had a beautiful and blossoming life until the end. I thought listening again to all his studio albums was probably the best way to reflect on his work and give my modest feedback…

 Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967): His debut album when he was already 33-year old, which already made him different from his contemporaries who very often had finished their careers at that canonical age. The story is quite known for those interested by his life: Leonard Cohen was already a celebrated poet and writer but he realised there was more money to be made in the music business, hence this first LP. This is probably his most classic and famous record, which bears in particular the worldwide known song “Suzanne”. The formula is simple: Leonard sings with his beautiful deep voice ten songs with a very lean instrumentation (very often a bit of acoustic guitar and that’s it). What makes this record eternal is the quality of the songs and their peculiar stories which were very often true and just facts that Leonard Cohen lived and put through poetry. Best tracks: “Sisters of Mercy”, “So Long, Marianne” and “Hey, that’s no Way to say Goodbye”. 9/10

 Songs from a room (1969) :  …and here is for me the first concrete example of a not-that-great LP from Leonard Cohen… The music is really boring and the sense of melodies very often nonexistent. What remains then for the listener? A few great songs for sure but not all of them can be considered as such. Listen without prejudice and I guess many of you will feel that way. Best tracks: “Bird on the Wire” , “The Partisan” and “You know who I am”. 7/10

 Songs of Love and Hate (1971) : has an album ever had such a clear title? Probably the best album from Leonard Cohen and that where he has never been more bitter or sharper in his words. As usual, if you like very complex music chords, forget it but if your idea of music is authenticity, great lyrics and emotional songs sung from a gravel voice, this is for you. Another recurring trend in his career is the way a few of these songs will have better singers cover them, like “Avalanche” covered by Nick Cave in 1985 for instance. …and as Lloyd Cole once said in a concert I attended in the early 00’s, “Famous Blue Raincoat” is (one) of the best songs ever. Best tracks: “Avalanche”, “Dress Rehearsal Rag” and “Famous Blue Raincoat”. 9/10

 New Skin for the old Ceremony (1974) : this is probably my favourite album from the great Canadian. The main reason is probably because to me this is the one where the musicality is the best, in the sense that one feels a close-to-perfect balance between his traditional guitar sound and added production. Probably the album where you will be able to listen to real sounds of drums and bass… and even a bit of groove. Well, we are not talking about Pharell Williams but you know what I mean,a “groovy” Leonard Cohen. Fantastic songs once again but this has been a recurring thing throughout his career so nothing new here. Best tracks: “Lover, lover, lover”, “There is a war” and “Take this longing” . 9.5/10

 Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977) : this is actually where things start to be embarrassing and awkward… This album does not have a good reputation for sure but I did not care one second about such consideration and was actually quite excited to listen to it again with fresh ears. For those who know their music history, they will be familiar with the fact that this record was produced by the formerly great Phil Spector. However, the guy was already on a declining slope and more famous for his eccentricities than for his work as his masterpieces were already behind him…and yes, that’s the one where he put his gun on Leo’s temples during a recording session. But the issue does not come from this but more from the fact that these songs are overall ok but often poorly producted and sometimes with weak melodies. I challenge everyone to listen to the song “Fingerprints” and find it good. So not his best record for sure… Best tracks: “Paper Thin Hotel”, “Dont’ Go Home with your Hard-On” and “Death of a Ladies’ Man”. 5/10

 Recent songs (1979) : not the most famous album of the great Canadian but one of his most solid ones. After the Phil Spector’s atypical record, Leonard Cohen was back to his more traditional sound but in a warmer way than usual and helped by subtle musical gems. One amazing song with “Came so far for Beauty” whereas the rest can be heard as a long moody sequence of tracks, sung quite beautifully. One thing though that would start a trend felt also in the next records: this is the place where one can feel the first (over?) use of female choirs. I have nothing against it (hello, Spiritualized) but here this is sometimes a bit out-of-place as far as I am concerned. Best tracks: “Humbled in Love”, “Came so far for Beauty” and “Our Lady of Solitude”. 7.5/10

 Various Positions (1984) : the first of his muzak albums… For those not familiar with the meaning of muzak, there is an expression in French :”musique d’ascenseur” (elevator music). This is probably too harsh as there are amazing songs in this record and sometimes the balance is really good as on the opener “Dance me to the end of love”. But overall, the music is much too dated with the sound of these awful 80’s synthesizers and organs and also these female choirs which do not bring anything at all. The best example being by far the immense song “Hallelujah”. The world should be eternally grateful to John Cale for spotting such beauty in this song and covering it in a style that Jeff Buckley would make its own a few years later. Best tracks : “Dance me to the End of Love”, “The Law” and “Hallelujah”. 6.5/10

Image result for i'm your man cover I’m your Man (1988) : as reviewed above, it would be foolish to say that Leonard Cohen had actually retired from music so talking about a comeback would be improper. However, that was the general feeling from all critics and audience alike as this LP was not really expected either in terms of being available but also in terms of music excellence. I know I am probably not consistent by criticizing on one side an album like “Various Positions” and praising “I’m your Man” when one focuses on the musical production. The only difference is that here Leonard Cohen goes until the end of his vision by incorporating only new sounds rather than being between a rock and a hard place. To make it short, this album uses new technology as good as the Pet Shop Boys do it. But that would be nothing without the songs of course and here you definitely have a few classics so re-discover this album again if not already the case. Best tracks : ” First we take Manhattan”, “Everybody knows” and “Tower of Song”. 8.5/10

Image result for the future leonard cohen The Future (1992) : unless you are the #1 worldwide fan of the late great Canadian, I guess everyone with a sense of artistry will admit that the cover with the bird, the heart and the handcuffs will not deserve a prize. ..and yes, I know this cannot be a criteria when one has in mind the cover of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds“. Anyway, this is neither the greatest Leonard Cohen LP… nor a tragedy as the songs are quite enjoyable in a sort of soporific-it’s-cold-outside-let’s-stay-home-read-a-book-and-play-this-record but this is not the main thing I want from music. As usual, there are a few great songs and “The Future” is one of them for sure but also a few embarrassing moments like the last almost-instrumental track “Tacoma trailer”. Best tracks : “The Future”, “Waiting for the Miracle” and “Democracy”. 6/10

 Ten New Songs (2001) : This record came out after nine years of silence, the longest interval between two albums at a time when Leonard Cohen was reaching his 67th year, so still a young man compared to other veterans. However, one can really feel here a man completely out of current trends, doing what he does best, ie singing calmly deep words with his gravel voice on top of quiet music. Once again, the music background is the real issue here as this is really to inoffensive and cheesy. Not terrible to one’s ears but quite boring to be honest. Not the kind or records you want to play regularly if you like music and the thousands of other exciting records to listen to. Best tracks: “In my Secret Life”, ” A Thousand Kisses Deep” and “By the Rivers Dark”. 5.5/10

 Dear Heather (2004) : First to all, “Dear Heather” is really the kind of record to listen to in specific moods and times of the day… In other words, quite a good record to listen to late at night, ideally in the umpteenth floor of a big tower with a view on the lights of the city… and not the kind you want to hear if you want super exciting music. This album is a bit the extreme for me regarding my muzak tolerance…but the songs are sometimes great, the mood makes sense very often and Leonard sings with the weight and wisdom of a not so young man. The thing is that there are really great songs but also terrible ones (hello “Undertow” and “Dear Heather”). Really difficult to judge on an objective manner so let’s be charmed by the great man and let’s not be too harsh… Best tracks : “Because of”, “The Letters” and “There for You”. 6/10

 Old Ideas (2012) : The first album of what I would call the farewell/twilight trilogy and a very good surprise to be honest. I bought this record quite mechanically I must say as when you are a music lover,… well you buy new records by Leonard Cohen, Radiohead, The Rolling Stones or Daft Punk whatever the reviews or the possibility of streaming… and this is one of those records I probably listened to a couple of times only. This is a much better one than his three previous efforts mainly due to the fact that the music is warmer and played with beautiful new instruments, such as a banjo or a violin. Interesting to note as well that Leonard Cohen is now clear about how to sing or rather how to tell stories whereas I was not convinced by his previous records. A few great songs and more than ever the regular themes of guilt, religion, disappointment, etc…on which Nick Cave based his career! Best tracks : “Going Home”, “Amen” and “Darkness”. 7/10

 Popular Problems (2014) : Another very solid effort from master Yoda and what a pleasure to get news from him on a regular basis so late in his career! Another thing I like about Leonard Cohen and his albums is that they are short and concise, which is a quality that fellow hip-hop artists should benefit sometimes. A very sharp album, where neither a word nor a note is superfluous. One should not be surprised by the quality of the writing when one knows the author but still there is such youth in these words that difficult not to be impressed. As usual, the music would benefit from having even less and I guess you understood that I am not a huge fan of female choir. What a pity that Leonard Cohen did not record with Rick Rubin as Johnny Cash did, as the results would have been amazing. Best tracks: “Almost like the Blues”, ” Did I ever love you” and “Nevermind”. 7.5/10

 You want it darker (2016) : Hopefully the last album from the great man as a) it looks it was conceived as such by his author b) nobody wants albums like the ones done after Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain died… This record has been out since mid-October 2016, i.e. two/three weeks before the sad news of the passing of Leonard Cohen and the mood is indeed very religious. Although not the masterpiece claimed in a few reviews, this is a beautiful way to say goodbye, thanks in particular to the great production of his son Adam Cohen. I am repeating myself but these last three albums will probably get better and better every year and this is quite difficult to judge such a fresh piece of art. Best tracks : “You want it darker”, “It seemed the better Way” and “Steer you Way”. 8/10

The verdict

14 studio albums in a row in around 3 weeks. Am I clearer on my musical relationship with Leonard Cohen? Slightly… I definitely recommend for anyone to own his four best albums and then one could create a great playlist with a few tracks here and there from the other LP’s. What is sure is that the world has been a better place with Leonard Cohen and that his influence on bands or on a certain way of seeing life and art has been immense. Musically speaking, it is true that not all his LP’s were great but who could say so apart from a few amazing artists? Alternatively, I would recommend one of the recent live albums (London or Dublin for instance) but also the fantastic compilation curated by les Inrocks in 1991 called “I’m your Fan”. Great covers by Pixies, Lloyd Cole, Nick Cave, Ian Mc Culloch…and so on. Probably the best way to listen to these songs is when they are sung by others.

R.I.P. Leo and thanks for making life on Earth a bit easier.

 

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