Retro Love – Songs of Leonard Cohen

In retrospect there is music in one’s life that is recognisable as formative. I only recently ‘discovered’ my passion for avant garde music, but I would have to say looking back that there are certain albums that set me up for a love of music when I finally found my place in that vast ocean.  Noticing what has formed you is one of the pleasures of getting some ‘life mileage’ under your belt.

I’m a big Leonard Cohen fan.  My favourite album of his is Songs of Love and Hate but with a songwriter as prolific as Leonard Cohen, I think I’m entitled to a second favourite album; certainly if such peculiar lists account for anything, I’d add Songs of Leonard Cohen as my second favourite. This album has the peculiar connection to me of being released on the day of my birth. Maybe that increases the connection?  Maybe that’s bullshit. All LC albums have a strong connection to his own writing – they are lyrically potent. That would account for my early connection with him as well.

Songs of Leonard Cohen is the debut album of Canadian musician Leonard Cohen. It foreshadowed the future path of his career, with less success in the United States and far better in Europe, reaching #83 on the Billboard chart but achieving gold status only in 1989, while it reached #13 in UK and spent nearly a year and a half in the UK album charts.  the song I’ve added above is probably Cohen’s most famous and most loved song – certainly his most covered. it is an astounding debut, though I would have to add that although very deeply loved (particularly in the last ten years) Leonard Cohen never really got better than this album, and probably this song.

In his later years Cohen got into Buddhism and embraced his Jewish religiosity  which translated into stunning spoken word songs like A thousand kisses deep, but I would argue that the loss of the cynicism and darkness cost Leonard in his music. Thank god he can’t get it together with the women. The best songs he comes up with still are the ones that question the torment of relationships. For me the stand out on Old Ideas is the song Anyhow, which contains a touch of that LC darkness that I adore so much. It’s morphed into a cheekiness now that the man is in his eighties, but I still recognise it.

Listen to Master Song, one of my personal favourites on this album. Its laced with a darkness Buddhism wont stand for. I know we romanticise Zen Buddhism in the West, and as my interest in it is cursory I can’t really comment on that other than what I said – although I will add, I think it owes me for what it stole via Leonard Cohen.

Through time there as been much written about women and their masochistic passion to connect with men who hurt them – and lets face it, that is every man as he tries to free himself of the claustrophobic love of a woman – of all the wonderful literature and lyrical ways this mystery has been examined The Stranger Song is just about my favourite. The dance between the woman and her lovers in this song is chilling.  She doesn’t want them to lose what makes them ‘Man” and yet that is the elusive concept that can’t be grasped.  The song opens with a lamentation on the similarities of men this woman attracts into her shelter.  She gathers men promising to give up bad habits, weaknesses, traits in themselves they don’t understand, have no language for but know they want removed.  Eventually they will all leave to return to their supposedly hated vices.  Her love can’t cure them, they can’t find their answers in their arms. She will notice a highway curling up like smoke above his shoulder.  He will leave her, and she will turn to the next, hoping he will be transformed by her love. These chilling words round out her always already experience:

And then Leaning on your window sill, he’ll say one day you’ve caused his will to weaken with your love and warmth and shelter. 

And then taking from his wallet, an old schedule of trains, he’ll say I told you when I came I was a stranger.  I told you when I came I was a stranger. 

Follow me the wise man said, but he walked behind. 

This song about the dark side of the quest for enlightenment is a pure masterpiece. See what I mean about LC being at his best when he’s lost?  The journey to enlightenment – whatever that means for you – is a dark night of horrors, your path scattered with destroyed relationships, wounded family members, lost friendships and ignored beauty.  The journey is not a pretty one; it’s not called The Dark Night of the Soul for no reason. LC captures this journey perfectly in this song.

Oh teachers are my lessons done, I cannot do another one.  

They laughed and laughed and said well child, are your lessons done.

Are your lessons done.  

Are your lessons done.

My final favourite from this album is this chilling love song about obsession, lust, fear and hatred in relationships. The dance between these two lovers who can’t find their way to each other, only to the perpetual torture of each other, is shocking to say the least. This is a love that could freeze an Eskimo, to recite a cliché from the song itself. This is a song laced with the horrors of the deeper aspects of the psyche. A cheating lover. A much-loved guru committing suicide. One’s childish attempts to be noticed going unrecognised. Sleepless nights. Public humiliation. The end of the song holds our purest and most recognisable horror. After all that they put each other through, he asks to come back to her:

I suppose that he froze when the wind took your clothes, and I guess he just never got warm

But you stand there so nice, in your blizzard of ice, please let me come into the storm.

Leonard Cohen knows how to extract the sting of life’s experiences and put them into a song for us. Included on this album is the great So Long Marianne, Sisters of Mercy and One of us Cannot be wrong – all great LC songs that have been reproduced by so many and loved by so many more. I’ll end this post with another of the best songs from this stunning album.