Leonard Cohen – Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979

Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979

Leonard CohenField Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979 Columbia CK 66210 (2001)

Leonard Cohen was first a poet then, perhaps, a musician. His monotone voice is something you love or hate. This album features recordings from four dates of a 1979 tour in the U.K.  While not exactly a live greatest hits collection, Field Commander Cohen does end with his classics “Bird On the Wire” and “So Long, Marianne.” The recordings are very good, only adding as much music as necessary.

The sheer genius of Cohen’s lyrics dominates everything he has done. His music is best described as an acquired taste. The durable ideas and complex emotions unfold slowly. It takes at least two or three listens to grasp Cohen’s purpose. The liner notes are particularly helpful with full listings of all lyrics, which are sometimes understood easiest when read. Vocals add another layer of meaning to Cohen’s words, which can be confusing to new listeners.

Songs portray likable losers and bare insecurity.  The faux doo-wop of “Memories” is a sweet story of longing, complete with innocent rejection. “The Stranger Song” captures the appeal of a singer/songwriter’s isolation, recalling the best of Cohen’s early work.  “Lover Lover Lover” pauses for a long instrumental passage, while a duet on “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” highlights the song’s sappy wit. “The Guests” is a twisted vision of desire. These songs are deep and profound. Cohen can take you where few other artists can, and offer a glimpse deep into his personal experience.

The band plays well. Overall the sound is mellow, even bland, but this seems like a calculated plan to showcase the lyrics.  At times the spark of live performance breathes new life into the songs.  Guest appearances by Raffi Hakopian and John Bilezikjian spice up the arrangements. Jennifer Warnes and Sharon Robinson sing backup, adding refreshing vocal depth. The album ends with arguably the best performances.

Leonard Cohen was about as strange a “rock star” as there ever was. He came to popularity near the end of the big 60s folk movement.  His unique blend of poetry and music would never catch on in another era, and is still unbelievable as it actually happened.  Leonard Cohen could be a great bluesman (though his voice would defy that genre).  Rather than the blues, he fashioned his own blend of comedy and tragedy.  This album is a good example those talents.

Field Commander Cohen is a nice album for long-time Cohen fans wanting more live material, and is still a good introduction for new listeners (it strikes a good balance between accessibility and potency), though there are many better live Cohen albums, like Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 and Live in London.

Leonard Cohen – New Skin for the Old Ceremony

New Skin for the Old Ceremony

Leonard CohenNew Skin for the Old Ceremony Columbia AL 33167 (1974)

Cohen summons an impressive assortment of styles. It is as if he tries them on, proving how versatile his songwriting can be by demonstrating that all the ones that fit.  So take “Lover Lover Lover,” which even concludes with a bit of klezmer clarinet.  Of course, then there is “Chelsea Hotel #2.”  This is a song you can listen to, start over again, and again, and suddenly an hour has gone by listening to just that one song.  It has Cohen’s inimitable sense of intimacy.  Cohen later admitted the song is about Janis Joplin.  Like a lot of Cohen’s best album-length statements, this one is great not because of one or two key songs, or even the production or eclectic styles.  No, what makes the whole album great is Cohen’s brilliant sense of place and social context.  He’s for the underdogs, doing what he can for their cause, a kind of consciousness-raising through song, without losing sight of the tenuous position of underdogs and the tactical challenges they face.  This is epitomized by “There Is a War.”  All said, this is one of Cohen’s better albums.

Leonard Cohen – Ten New Songs

Ten New Songs

Leonard CohenTen New Songs Columbia CK 85953 (2001)

“I fought against the bottle / but I had to do it drunk”

— “That Don’t Make It Junk”

Leonard Cohen, the beautiful loser, has endured as one of the most important lyricists in rock ‘n’ roll history. He has long been a patron of tortured souls. Yet, Cohen is adrift himself. He doesn’t speak from a sturdy pulpit but rather from intermittent places of shelter. Ten New Songs from 2001 was Cohen’s first studio recording since 1992. Acceptance overrides bravura in this glimpse of Leonard Cohen; but as always, his songs present an intelligent view of a complex existence.

The past decades have seen Cohen embark on a spiritual journey that prior to this album included about six years at a Zen retreat (where he took the name Jikan, “the Silent One”). It seems his journey provided at least some resolution. Ten New Songs returns to exploration of the tension of relationships where Cohen still seeks a love he knows he will never find. He has no answers to dispense, but speaks for lack of a better alternative. His voice barely hanging on (it is almost gratuitous to call him a “singer”), he now doles out oddly reassuring commentary from the shadows. In somber tones, Ten New Songs pulls together all the facets of his genius.

The first and last tracks are bright moments and instantly Cohen classics. On “In My Secret Life,” he grapples with a realization that his only actions lie in dreams. Cohen’s quest for truth yields to a hope for any understanding (as on “That Don’t Make It Junk”). His misery collects inside. He tries to make sense of the infinite textures of love and peace. Cohen’s spirituality is still alive in the simple prayers of “The Land of Plenty.” His words do provide, even if only for a moment, unthinkable possibility.

Sharon Robinson, who first worked with Cohen on his 1979 tour, performs the accompaniments almost entirely herself and co-wrote all the songs. She makes an opportune ally in these battles with pain and longing by tempering the fine line between Cohen’s soul and his gravelly monotone. The album cover illustrates, with both heads cocked to their right, the alignment of their thinking. “Alexandra Leaving” find the two in their finest form, singing a classic Cohen tale of fleeting love. Hopefully, Cohen could get by without a collaborator, which may show his continuing desire to utilize Robinson’s many contributions. Perhaps an older — and even wiser — Cohen seeks a compromise.

Leonard Cohen, with Sharon Robinson, has modestly made another album of solemnly dark beauty. His wretched existence continues to expand a legacy of brilliant works. Ten New Songs is a great collection of songs by any standard.

Leonard Cohen – Death of a Ladies’ Man

Death of a Ladies' Man

Leonard CohenDeath of a Ladies’ Man Warner Bros. BS 3125 (1977)

If it’s anything, this album is frustrating.  It is basically two entirely different albums smashed together — and they go together like oil and water.  Phil Spector provides a dense, rich backdrop in which Leonard Cohen’s songs and voice seem entirely lost.  At his most effective, Cohen’s music has a personal intimacy that seems to speak directly to the listener.  Spector’s music, on the other hand, revels in a kind of jubilant — even garish — kind of festive quality, which is fit for dancing and get-togethers.  Together, Spector and Cohen are a match made south of heaven.  On Death of a Ladies Man, Spector is doing what he always does, hardly different from anything he did with The Ronettes, etc.  He doesn’t give an inch.  Cohen is writing some excellent songs, ones that embody a late-Seventies come-down and are filled with an incisive sense of resignation and disappointment.  But finding your way to Cohen’s astute lyrics is far more of a chore than it needs to be.  As a singer, Cohen is unsuited to this kind of musical setting.  His limited vocal abilities don’t exactly allow him to pull a voice like Ronnie Spector or Tina Turner out of his back pocket.  That puts more of the blame on Phil Spector for the underwhelming results.  Even if the musical backdrop is fine in and of itself, it needs to suit the star performer.  Spector’s production would have befitted, say, Scott Walker (now there was a missed opportunity!).  Here, it’s all wrong.  This record is a minor disaster saved only by the fact that concentrated effort reveals a lot of substance in Cohen’s lyrics.  As an aside, it is interesting that some of Cohen’s vocal duets with Ronee Blakley distinctly recall Bob Dylan‘s with Emmylou Harris on Desire from a year earlier (and Dylan, along with Allen Ginsburg, makes a cameo appearance here on “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On”).

Leonard Cohen – Live at the Isle of Wight 1970

Live at the Isle of Wight 1970

Leonard CohenLive at the Isle of Wight 1970 Legacy 88697 57067 2 (2009)

The third Isle of Wight music festival in 1970 was something of a disaster, with riotous gate-crashers disrupting many of the performances and with the stage and instruments being lit on fire.  Leonard Cohen, appearing with his band “The Army”, was featured toward the end of the festival.  He achieved what other performers had failed to do: to calm and captivate the unruly crowd.  “Let’s sing another song boys; this one has grown old and bitter.”  

This recording (CD + DVD) captures his performances admirably.  Cohen wasn’t the most refined musician around.  He didn’t play guitar particularly well, and despite having an unmistakable voice he wasn’t the best of singers.  But this “Army” in 1970 (assembled by and featuring producer Bob Johnston) was arguably the best band he ever performed with.  The era when schmaltz crept into his music was still a few years off.  While the schlock of his later years bothers me a lot less than most listeners, there is no denying that Cohen’s bands often leave a lot to be desired.  With a few exceptions (Sharon Robinson, Jennifer Warnes), Cohen often surrounded himself with performers that would otherwise be playing for a sparse, disinterested crowd at the Holiday Inn’s Sunday brunch.  Yet, what some of the interviews on this DVD sketch out is the portrait of a guy who maybe wasn’t all that concerned with posterity.  He opted to be a decent guy on a personal level who supported his friends rather than becoming a cutthroat entrepreneur seeking only the finest performances with no sense of loyalty.  “But I have many friends, and some of them are with me.”

The Isle of Wight concert came shortly before the release of Cohen’s best album, Songs of Love and Hate.  He offers a few songs from that album, but mostly featured are songs from his first two albums.  Cohen is really a one-of-a-kind songwriter.  He is every bit the equal of a Bob Dylan or Townes Van Zandt as a lyricist, with the imagery and wordplay of Dylan intact but with the dark and harrowing personal focus of Van Zandt too.  Though he came up at the tail end of the urban folk movement, and was around through the whole singer-songwriter movement, he never quite fit the stereotype of any of those kinds of performers.  The wisdom in his words is a rare thing.  Even listening to his songs for the 1000th time, there is always something in the juxtaposition of his words and themes that comes out to surprise.  You always get the sense that Cohen just could see the world with clearer eyes, and could put across the trying aspects of life with an alacrity and charm that made it all seem so comfortable: “like a drunk in some old midnight choir.”

This might be the best live Cohen album available.  Sure, we all know the timing of this release has quite a bit to do with Cohen going broken not long before.  But there is no compromise in this music.  “It’s time that we began to laugh, and cry, and cry, and laugh about it all again.”