Songs of Leonard Cohen

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This article is about the album. For an index of Leonard Cohen's music, see Leonard Cohen discography.
Songs of Leonard Cohen
Studio album by Leonard Cohen
Released December 27, 1967
(limited release);
February 1968
Recorded August 1967
Columbia Studio E, New York
Genre Folk
Length 41:09
Label Columbia
Producer John Simon
Leonard Cohen chronology
Songs of Leonard Cohen
(1967)
Songs from a Room
(1969)
Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
Allmusic 5/5 stars[1]
Music Box 5/5 stars[2]
Pitchfork Media (9.6/10)[3]
Q 4/5 stars[4]
Rolling Stone (1967) Neutral[5]
Rolling Stone (2004) 5/5 stars[6]
Uncut 4/5 stars[7]

Songs of Leonard Cohen is the 1967 debut album of Canadian musician Leonard Cohen. It foreshadowed the future path of his career, with less success in the United States than in Europe, reaching #83 on the Billboard chart and 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.

Background[edit]

Cohen had received critical acclaim as a poet and novelist but had maintained a keen interest in music, having played guitar in a country and western band called the Buckskin Boys as a teenager. In 1966, Cohen's set out for Nashville, where he hoped to become a country songwriter, but instead he got caught up in New York City's folk scene. In November 1966, Judy Collins recorded "Suzanne" for her album In My Life and Cohen soon came to the attention of famed record producer John Hammond. Although Hammond (who initially signed Cohen to his contract with Columbia Records) was supposed to produce the record, he became sick and was replaced by the producer John Simon.[8]

Recording[edit]

Initially, Hammond had Cohen work up guitar parts for "Master Song" and "Sisters of Mercy" with jazz bassist Willie Ruff, and then brought in some of New York's top session musicians to join them, a move that made Cohen nervous; as biographer Anthony Reynolds observes in his book Leonard Cohen: A Remarkable Life, the dynamic between Cohen and Ruff had been intimate and natural but "the arrival of more anonymous personnel unnerved Cohen, the studio novice put off by their proficiency." Cohen did ask that a full-length mirror be brought into the studio because, as he explained to Mojo in November 2001, "through some version of narcissism, I always used to play in front of a mirror. I gues sit was the best way to look while playing the guitar, or maybe it was just where the chair was. But I was very comfortable looking at myself playing." After Hammond dropped out of the sessions, John Simon took over as producer and, by all accounts, Simon and Cohen clashed over instrumentation and mixing; Cohen wanted the album to have a sparse sound, while Simon felt the songs could benefit from arrangements that included strings and horns. Writing for Mojo in 2012, Sylvie Simmons recalls, "When Leonard heard the result, he was not happy; the orchestration on 'Suzanne' was overblown, while everything about 'Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye' felt too soft. Several tracks had too much bottom, and there were even drums; Leonard had clearly stipulated no drums." The singer and producer also quarreled over a slight stop in the middle of "So Long, Marianne," - a device Cohen felt interrupted the song. According to biographer Ira Nadel, although Cohen was able to make changes to the mix, some of Simon's additions "couldn't be removed from the four-track master tape."[8]

The instrumentalists - not credited on the album sleeve - included Chester Crill, Chris Darrow, Solomon Feldthouse and David Lindley of The Kaleidoscope, who had been recruited personally by Cohen after he saw the band play at a New York club.

Composition[edit]

The album features some of Cohen's most celebrated songs. Mojo has described the album as "not only the cornerstone of Cohen's remarkable career, but also a genuine songwriting landmark in terms of language, thematic developments and even arrangements."[9] "Suzanne," an ode to a "half-crazy" woman who lives near the St. Lawrence River in Montreal and who is capable of profound personal/spiritual connection with the song's narrator, was ranked 41st on Pitchfork Media's 'Top 200 Songs of the 1960s',[10] while "So Long, Marianne" was also featured on the list at 190th.[11] In an 1986 interview with the BBC Cohen explained, "The writing of 'Suzanne,' like all my songs, took a long time. I wrote most of it in Montreal - all of it in Montreal - over the space of, perhaps, four or five months. I had many, many verses to it. Sometimes the song would go off on a tangent, and you’ll have perfectly respectable verses, but that have led you away from the original feel of the song. So, it’s a matter of coming back. It’s a very painful process because you have to throw away a lot of good stuff." In the same interview Cohen also revealed that "Master Song" was written "on a stone bench at what was the corner of Burnside and Guy Street...I remember sitting on that bench, working out the lyric to that song." As recounted to Uncut's Nigel Williamson in 1997, "Sisters of Mercy" had been written "in Edmonton during a snow storm, and I took refuge in an office lobby. There were two young back-packers there, Barbara and Lorraine, and they had nowhere to go. I asked them back to my hotel room – they immediately got into the bed and crashed while I sat in the armchair watching them sleep. I knew they had given me something, and, by the time they woke up, I had finished the song and I played it to them.” In the 1996 memoir Various Positions, biographer Ira Nadel contends that "Stories of the Street" documents Cohen's despair and dislocation during his early days in New York while "Stranger Song" addresses loss, departure, and essential yet destructive nature of love. In the book Songwriters on Songwriting, Cohen told author Paul Zollo that he wrote "So Long, Marianne" "in two hotels. One was the Chelsea and the other was the Penn Terminal Hotel. I remember Marianne (Jensen, Cohen's girlfriend at the time) looking at my notebook, seeing this song and asking, 'Who’d you write this for?'" When Cohen played the Isle of Wight in 1970, he told the crowd that he'd written "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong" in a peeling room in the Chelsea Hotel when he was "coming off amphetamine and pursuing a blond lady that I met in a Nazi poster."

By the time the album was released in December 1967, Cohen had already signed away the rights to "Suzanne" and "Stranger Song" (along with "Dress Rehearsal Rag," which would later surface on his 1971 album Songs of Love and Hate), to arranger Jeff Chase, with the singer lamenting to Adrian Deevoy of The Q Magazine in 1991, "Someone smarter than me got me to sign the publishing over to them. I lost 'Suzanne,' 'Stranger Song' and 'Dress Rehearsal Rag.' I finally got them back three years ago, but I lost a lot of money."

Reception[edit]

The album became a cult favorite in the US, as well as in the UK, where it spent over a year on the album charts.[12] The album received mixed reviews at the time of its release, with Arthur Schmidt of Rolling Stone writing, "There are three brilliant songs, one good one, three qualified bummers, and three flaming shits." While praising "Suzanne" for its "moments of fairly digestible surrealism," the New York Times opined in a January 1968 review that on the alienation scale, Cohen rated "somewhere between Schopenhauer and Bob Dylan, two other prominent poets of pessimism." Critics have been far kinder to the album since its release, with many considering it a highlight in the Cohen canon. Mark Deming of AllMusic states, "The ten songs on Songs of Leonard Cohen were certainly beautifully constructed, artful in a way few (if any) other lyricists would approach for some time, but what's most striking about these songs isn't Cohen's technique, superb as it is, so much as his portraits of a world dominated by love and lust, rage and need, compassion and betrayal...few musicians have ever created a more remarkable or enduring debut." Writing in Mojo in 2012, Sylvie Simmons called the LP "brilliant," adding that it "sounded like nothing of its time - of any time really - fresh and ancient, cryptic and intimate." Brian Howe of Pitchfork declares, "1968's Songs of Leonard Cohen contains many of his most essential songs - 'Suzanne,' 'Master Song,' "Stranger Song,' 'Sisters of Mercy,' 'So Long, Marianne' - and establishes the themes and stylistic tics he would pursue relentlessly over the ensuing decades." In 2007, Tim Nelson of BBC Music called the collection "the absolute must-have classic." Amazon.com deems the album "stunning." In a 2014 Rolling Stone readers poll ranking the top ten Leonard Cohen songs, "Suzanne" came in at #2 while "So Long, Marianne" came in at #6.

Releases[edit]

Songs of Leonard Cohen was released on CD in 1989, while a digipak edition was released in some European countries in 2003. A remastered version, with the bonus tracks "Store Room" and "Blessed is the Memory," was released in the United States on April 24, 2007, and in Japan on June 20, 2007. The Japanese version was a limited edition replica of the original record album cover with lyric card insert. In 2009, the album (including the 2007 bonus tracks) was included in Hallelujah - The Essential Leonard Cohen Album Collection, an 8-CD box set issued by Sony Music in the Netherlands.

Artwork[edit]

On the back cover of the album is a Mexican religious picture of the Anima Sola depicted as a woman breaking free of her chains surrounded by flames and gazing towards heaven. In a Rolling Stone interview, Cohen described the image as "the triumph of the spirit over matter. The spirit being that beautiful woman breaking out of the chains and the fire and prison."[13] Cohen found the picture in a botánica near the Hotel Chelsea in 1965.[14] The album's front cover depicts a sepia tint photo of Cohen credited to Machine.

On Film Soundtracks[edit]

Three of the album's songs, "Winter Lady", "The Stranger Song", and "Sisters of Mercy", were used in the 1971 Robert Altman film McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Music from the album is also used extensively in German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1971 drama Beware of a Holy Whore. Werner Herzog's film Fata Morgana, also of 1971, includes the songs "Suzanne", "So Long Marianne" and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye".

Track listing[edit]

All songs written by Leonard Cohen.

Side one[edit]

  1. "Suzanne" – 3:48
  2. "Master Song" – 5:55
  3. "Winter Lady" – 2:15
  4. "The Stranger Song" – 5:00
  5. "Sisters of Mercy" – 3:32

Side two[edit]

  1. "So Long, Marianne" – 5:38
  2. "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" – 2:55
  3. "Stories of the Street" – 4:35
  4. "Teachers" – 3:01
  5. "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong" – 4:23

Bonus tracks on 2007 reissue[edit]

  1. "Store Room" – 5:06
  2. "Blessed Is the Memory" – 3:03

Selected cover recordings[edit]

Suzanne[edit]

Judy Collins recorded "Suzanne" on her 1966 album In My Life. The seminal British folk-rock group Fairport Convention were also among Cohen's earliest admirers, recording a performance of "Suzanne" (sung as a duet between Sandy Denny and Iain Matthews) for the BBC in August 1968.

A version by Noel Harrison reached no.56 on the US pop chart in 1967.[15] Other versions of "Suzanne" included those by Neil Diamond, Pearls Before Swine, Françoise Hardy, Tori Amos, Nick Cave, Harry Belafonte, The Flying Lizards, Peter Gabriel, Geoffrey Oryema and Nina Simone. Italian singer Fabrizio de André sang an Italian version and Anni-Frid Lyngstad ("Frida" of ABBA fame) also recorded a version of the song with Swedish lyrics by Owe Junsjö for "Frida", her 1971 début album.

Sisters of Mercy[edit]

Judy Collins recorded "Sisters of Mercy" on her 1967 hit album Wildflowers. Sting and The Chieftains performed a Celtic music-influenced version of the song on Tower of Song. "Sisters of Mercy" was also covered by British folk musician Wizz Jones on his 1970 album "The Legendary Me" and by Area, a darkwave band from Champaign, Illinois on their 1988 CD The Perfect Dream. Beth Orton performed "Sisters of Mercy" in the film Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man.

Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye[edit]

"Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" was sung by Judy Collins on Wildflowers (1967), by Roberta Flack on her album, First Take (1969), and by The Vogues in 1970. More recent covers include versions by Beth Jeans Houghton, Ian McCulloch, by Michael Monroe of Hanoi Rocks, The Lemonheads, Sons of the Sea and by Sarah Slean & The Art Of Time Ensemble. It was released as the B-Side of Suzanne.

So Long Marianne[edit]

Brian Hyland released "So Long, Marianne" as a single in 1971, while the britpop group James recorded it on I'm Your Fan. Indie rock band Straitjacket Fits also covered it on their 1988 debut.

Winter Lady[edit]

"Winter Lady" was performed by Kate and Anna McGarrigle with Martha Wainwright in the film Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man. Will Oldham, recording under the name Palace Songs, released a version of "Winter Lady" on his 1994 EP Hope. Brazilian singer and songwriter Renato Russo, of the rock band Legião Urbana, also made a recording of this song in 1997.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Allmusic review
  2. ^ Douglas Heselgrave. "Music Box review". Musicbox-online.com. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
  3. ^ Pitchfork Media review
  4. ^ Dave Everley Q, May 2007, Issue 250.
  5. ^ Arthur Schmidt > Review. "The Songs Of Leonard Cohen". Rolling Stone. Retrieved August 27, 2012. 
  6. ^ "Leonard Cohen: Songs of Leonard Cohen". Acclaimed Music. Retrieved 2014-09-19. 
  7. ^ David Cavanagh Uncut, May 2007, Issue 120
  8. ^ a b Nadel, Ira B. Various Position: A Life of Leonard Cohen. Pantheon Books: New York, 1996.
  9. ^ Phil Alexander. Mojo magazine. March 2012
  10. ^ "The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s". Pitchfork Media. Retrieved 2009-05-12. 
  11. ^ "The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s". Pitchfork Media. Retrieved 2009-05-12. 
  12. ^ "Sixties crooner Leonard Cohen makes comeback concert tour". London Evening Standard. 13 March 2008. Archived from the original on 23 February 2010. Retrieved 23 February 2010. 
  13. ^ "Ladies and Gents, Leonard Cohen". Rolling Stone. 
  14. ^ http://www.leonardcohenforum.com/viewtopic.php?t=1165&highlight=anima
  15. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2003). Top Pop Singles 1955-2002 (1st ed.). Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 303. ISBN 0-89820-155-1. 

External links[edit]