I was first introduced to the music of Leonard Cohen by a lady. This was entirely appropriate; I never realised until I read Sylvie Simmons’ biography I’m your man, how much Cohen oriented his writing, and indeed, seems to have oriented much of his life, towards women. From his deep voice he sounds very masculine, but without that voice I believe that he would have about the same status as, say, Townes van Zandt, that is, hugely respected by other song-writers, but still relatively unknown. Instead he has become an icon.
Cohen is a great lyricist with a fine understanding of tune, but unlike Dylan he has written few tunes that might qualify as standards. It is always the lyrics that we return to. So, how good are they, really?
We can probably all come out for all sides on this topic. Certainly I have had my moments when he’s seemed far beyond Dylan and everyone else. But I’ve grown a little older since then. I’ve come to see him as a fair tunesmith, a competent song-writer, a great one-line-maker, with only occasional sustained focus, but with moments of genuine transcendence that we’ve become so familiar with that we’ve invented a new word for them: “Cohen-esque!” We all know what that means; brutally dark while also gently mocking:
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there…
He puts on his dark glasses and he shows you where to hit, but then the cameras pan, the stand-in starman…
I raise my glass to the awful truth that you can’t reveal to the ears of youth, except to say it isn’t worth a dime…
The man’s influence has been immense.
But if we put the voice aside for now, and put the subject matter (the dark-and-mocking-ness) aside also, what – artistically – are we left with? Many of the songs on his albums were really just filler; Ballad of the absent mare and The lost Canadian being obvious examples.
My absolute favourite of all of his songs still remains The Gypsy Wife, and the Youtube live performance of it is breath-taking. It almost doesn’t even matter whether his songs are good or bad, or even how he gets his mood going – when it’s going well, it’s cosmic. He’s written some absolutely wonderful songs (though I’m not sure Hallelujah is one of them).
But it’s always seemed to me that if one looks a bit deeper at his lyrics they often seem a bit thin. Cohen doesn’t really do dense. He can, and has on occasions, typically in Closing time, but often he merely weaves a mood or an ambience. This is fine, of course, but he has a reputation as a lyricist, perhaps the greatest lyricist of darkness. But to me much of his material suggests more than it delivers. Take songs like The Guests and If it be your will. They’re both quite good, but they don’t really deliver much. There’s a lack of genuinely evocative or powerful poetry in them, merely clichés and variations thereof, and when B-minus material is yoked to C-minus tunes the result is…, well…, thin.
There is a quote from music executive Walter Yetnikoff that runs “Leonard, we know you’re great, we just don’t know if you’re any good.” It was his response to first hearing Various Positions, which to my mind has one of the Cohen’s best songs on it: Night comes on. But what I suspect Yetnikoff was referring to was the reliance on atmosphere rather than substance, the predominance of mood and the absence of musicality. The album has some other good songs, including Hunter’s Lullaby, and even Hallelujah is a fine song (that probably should have opened the album). And there are great lyrics dispersed throughout: “Complain, complain, that’s all you’ve done, ever since we lost, if it’s not the crucifixion then it’s the holocaust.”
The arrangements are always good with Cohen (except of course on Phil Specter’s outing in Death of a ladies’ man) and the voice hints at depths, the language is consistent and appropriate, his use of ambiguity and irony are well-honed and there are occasional striking images, but all-in-all I just find much of it a little bit thin. Diehard fans will insist that such songs as Coming back to you and Jazz police do actually work, and maybe they do, but they are far below what we know he’s capable of. More Famous blue raincoats and Seems so long ago Nancys please Leonard!
This question of filler can be subtle. There’s a point of view (that I share) that says that a triplet like
I don’t like your fashion business Mister
I don’t like those drugs that keep you thin
I don’t like what happened to my sister…
from First we take Manhatten, is well worth whatever other limitations exist on the rest of the album (the menace in that last line – wow!)
I guess that I’d just like the “lazy bastard living in a suit” to work a little harder. In recent years Cohen has farmed-out the tune-writing to his women friends, and it shows! Well, he’s certainly done enough to coast for however long he wishes, but it’s a wonderful gift he’s wasting.
Addenda: Cohen died on November 7, 2016, aged 82. There was an effort to squeeze one last album from him, the modest You Want It Darker, which the reviewers were very kind to. Personally, I have been disappointed with his output since the wretched Dear Heather, but again the critics waxed philosophical about it, one saying: it looks upon experience as something to be accepted as a portal to wisdom and gratitude. Yeah, well, I was hoping for some music. RIP.