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*** Please note the Greatest Hits album I review is a different version to the one shown, (mine is the 2009 version) if you intend to buy, read the track-listing (though you can't go far wrong in any version) ***
Leonard Cohen's career has spanned decades, his fan base enormous and yet he is not a household name. Every man and his dog have heard one of his songs, though. Hallelujah is impossible to escape, it's been covered countless times, appeared on several soundtracks and was the winning song for an X factor participant. Yet many people wouldn't even know the gravelly toned Canadian wrote the damn thing. With a new album out, and the 77 year old about to tour again, I thought I would attempt to review one of his greatest hits albums.
Famous Blue Raincoat is one of my favourite songs of his. While it centres on an oft used theme; (the song is about a love triangle), Cohen chooses to focus on the aftermath of one. The song takes the form of a letter, from Cohen to a friend who had an affair with his wife. Blame is there, but Cohen suggests all three are at fault; Famous blue raincoat himself betrayed their friendship, Jane strayed from Cohen, and Cohen's crime was neglect.'Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes; I thought it was there for good, so I never tried'. The lyrics are poignant, the melody simple and Cohen's voice at his most affecting. Cohen at his best.
Chelsea Hotel No. 2 is a tribute to the 'fallen robin' Janis Joplin. Funny, touching, hopeful and desolate all at once, the last verse is crushing in its sorrow.
A lot of people have written far more intelligently and eloquently than I ever will on perhaps Cohen's most well-known song, Hallelujah. All I shall say is this, while Cohen's original sounds a little dated and isn't generally considered to be the best version, it is the most uplifting version. Cohen's dry, bitter voice is perfectly suited to his interpretation (although it seems silly to call the original an interpretation). From Cale onwards, the last verse is omitted. It is this last verse that makes the biggest difference between covers and original. Because it is this verse that Cohen triumphs over the broken Hallelujah. For someone who has a reputation of being miserable, I find it amusing that his version of the song is the most hopeful.
Who By Fire is another religion inspired track, which is loosely based on a Jewish poem that has been recited for centuries on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. It's a simple list based song that asks how we will all die. Its power lies in its simplicity. For my money, Cohen did it best in this dramatic, Spanish sounding live version:
Everybody Knows has a pulsing melody that gives you the sense it's heading to a dramatic end. Written during the 80's about the AIDS epidemic, Cohen sings in an almost scornful way, as though the narrator saw this coming and watches without sympathy. The sweet backing vocals are a sharp contrast to Cohen's dispassionate vocals.
As tempting as it is to do a track by track review, I've only highlighted a handful of songs as it's incredibly easy to sit and gush about what a lyrical genius Cohen is. (And he really, really is). Other highlights include 'Dance me to the end of love', 'So long, Marianne', 'A thousand kisses deep', 'First we take Manhattan' and 'Suzanne'.
This is a great place to start if you're looking to get into Leonard Cohen; it's a varied introduction to his music that includes his more well-known works.
I found my copy in HMV on one of their 2 for £10 deals, on its own I believe it was around £7.99. You can pick it up from Amazon for a mere £4.93 with free P&P.
So Long Marianne
Sisters Of Mercy
Famous Blue Raincoat
Waiting For The Miracle
Who By Fire
Chelsea Hotel No 2
Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye
Bird On The Wire
A Thousand Kisses Deep
Dance Me To The End Of Love
First We Take Manhattan
I'm Your Man
This was one of the first albums I ever bought, and has been one of the most played in my collection ever since. I first came across Leonard Cohen by way of Joan Baez's cover of "Suzanne" - incidentally, the first track on this album. I loved the wistful lyrics of the song, and hunted out the original. Having found it, I also discovered a host of other Cohen gems, the best of which can be found on this greatest hits recording.
The album features 12 tracks, including:
2. Sisters of Mercy
3. So Long, Marianne
4. Bird on a Wire
5. Lady Midnight
7. Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye
8. Famous Blue Raincoat
9. Last Year's Man
10. Chelsea Hotel No. 2
11. Who by Fire
12. Take This Longing
The album has a distinctly 60's feel, with Cohen's typical, spoken-word style of singing elevated by female accompaniment. This arrangement works particularly well on the (relatively) upbeat Hey, that's no way to say Goodbye, while the forlornness of Bird on A wire is touching indeed.
For those who find Cohen's voice whiny (I've lost count of the number of friends who've thrown this accusation at me when I try to convince them of "The Greatness Of Leonard Cohen"), this album would probably be a miss.
For those who are new to Cohen's music, the album provides an accessible introduction to his style. Starting with a collection of singles, as opposed to an original album, also avoids the problem that some find with Cohen's work: i.e. 1 or two great songs lost in the middle of 12 average/ not so good tracks. Cohen is one of those artists that are better represented, and approached, by a choice selection of singles, rather than complete albums.
And for those who are already convinced, the album provides a convenient collection of Cohen at his best.
Those of a nervous disposition when it comes to sentimental poetry should look away now for I'm about to share a tale of unashamed romanticism. People who know my work will know of my devotion to Johnny Depp but actually he's a Johnny-come-lately and there is one who came before and still beside me in moments of joy and darkness - his name is Leonard Cohen and despite his years, there's many a night, usually a Friday after a few glasses of wine, when he picks up his guitar to serenade me.
Once I had the full collection of his albums but like the great artists who sold their paintings for a beer or an absinthe in many a lonely bar, I sold my album collection and kept my canvases. All that remains is the Greatest Hits -its more than enough to feel never alone and touched by the kiss of first love.
I am going to say a few words about each track because Leonard's songs and poetry are important to me and I am sure there are many young readers on dooyoo who have never heard of him so the track list will give them a little insight into the man and his music.
We start with Suzanne - a warm, summer morning as the wind breezes through a half-open window and the words roll softly over her as she sleeps. The dreaming poet caresses her with his words and the guitar is gentle enough not to wake her. Leonard's voice is soft and slightly adanoidal. It's as young as I can recall him sounding but there's still maturity and wisdom in the words. The female backing vocals sound rather dated, virginal and Tyrolean like a visitation from the Sound of Music yet the surreal combination works a treat. 10/10
2 Sisters of Mercy
A song as sweet as sugared almonds - almost sickly. Gentle toy town guitar builds up to be accompanied by xylophone as it twirls into a waltz. A religious theme singing the praises of the Sisters of Mercy, you feel as always that the velvety soft words are sometimes barbed yet as always, beautiful. 9/10
3 So Long Marianne
An upbeat track with strong female vocal presence and a decidedly sixties feel. It's free and wild - a story of ending relationships but one without sadness, only the optimism of liberty. The line that always jumps out and is lodged in my head is..
I used to think I was some kind of gypsy boy.........
We all did; perhaps I still do.
4 Bird on a Wire
Of all the beautiful songs that Leonard has written, this one is the flag on the top of the mountain. Only three chords and nothing but a guitar to crowd the profound simplicity. This is his anthem - so good that even Johnny Cash sang it towards the end of his life. It's a fitting epitaph indeed.
Like a bird, on a wire
Like a drunk, in a midnight choir
I have tried, in my way
To be free
5 Lady Midnight
Feels firmly routed in the 60's beatnik poetry tradition but compared to his peers, the strumming is less strident and the vocals less protestant. We are also spared any eardrum shattering mouth organ. He sets a very high standard but this falls a little short. 7/10
6 The Partisan
Now we move to France and the Second World War. We're on the run with the Maquis. Cohen shows that he is not only a great poet but a fantastic musical dramatist and acomplished guitarist. There's an urgency about the song but its never rushed and you are left with the feeling of the bittersweet inevitability of death and freedom.
Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing
Through the graves, the wind is blowing
Still, I must go on
Freedom soon will follow
Being Canadian, Leonard is able to offer us a French rendition too and the chorus sung with female backing vocals sends a shiver down my spine and leads me off to join the resistance.
7 Hey, That's No Way to say Goodbye
Deliciously poetic and romantic, the words unravel one continuous ribbon of silk in a hypnotic mantra expressing profound love yet knowing loss, is waiting its turn. The acoustic guitar, backing vocals and gentle accompaniment are never intrusive but drift along silently, like a boat on a balmy summer's evening. There is still a touch of boyish infatuation but with enough maturity for fatalism.
I love you in the morning
Our kisses deep and warm
Your head upon the pillow
Like a sleepy golden storm
8. Famous Blue Raincoat
The opening few chords are fingered so quitely that they are barely audible but there are enough minor chords to know the mood is sombre. The openiong lines confirm our worse fears that this is a song to kill yourself to!
It's four in the morning
The end of December
I'm writing you now
Just to see if your better
Well, of course, she's worse and the clouds gradually build into a heavy sky of darkness. There's a touch of Lou Reed irony lightening the rather Jewish sounding apocalyptic pessimism. 10/10
9 Last Year's man
Back to beatnik land with the folk preaching style of the time and as you might expect there's a conversation with Lazarus, Joan of Arc, Jesus, Cain and the subject matter covers good and evil, sex, war and politics. People were very earnest about such things at the time, and sung them earnestly.
10 Chelsea Hotel No 2
Poetry, irony, songwriting and Leonard at his best. A simple hotel room privides a stark Hopper context. The theme of 'we had some good times' didn't we? is not so rare but the method of delivery is unique and I make no apologies for picking out a few more lines...
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
You were famous, your heart was a legend
You told me again, you prefer handsome men
But for me, you would make an exception
I love these lines so much.
11 Who by Fire
This is a song which, with more hectic vocals might pass for Cat Stevens. The instrumentation and phrasing are distinctively Greek and it has a more upbeat, upfront melodrama than many of the other tracks. It's also rather more produced and orchestrated than the more exposed acoustic songs but gives us a good lift after a few rather morose songs.
12 Take this Longing
A slightly strange choice for a last track but perhaps appropriate if you're planning to go to bed afterwards - it's a love song but it barely hides its lustful intentions - Goodnight!
So there you have it - 12 tracks of sheer poetry. Some are quite morose but seeing that Leonard suffered from depression throughout most of his life it comes as no surprise.
Even though this is a Greatest Hits compilation I still think it is worth buying because all the tracks are excellent. They were all written before 1974, some when he lived on the Greek island of Hydra and others after he had moved to New York. Personally I love the earlier tracks - they are more deep and meaningful than his later material.
Over the years a lot of people have asked me how I view Leonard Cohen - as a vocalist, songwriter, poet, philosopher, a musician? I think he has all those qualities. Leonard and I go back a long, long time and I have loved his music and poetry since I was a teenager. Whenever I have been down he has always uplifted me - crazy, I know as he isn't the cheeriest of chappies. He has been an inspiration to me over the decades and influenced my art, writing and poetry. My saddest regret is that I have never seen him play live. He came to Warsaw last October and I was unable to buy a ticket as they were sold out. I even tried in Berlin as it was the next stop on the tour but that was sold out. He is 75 years old now and although he is a lot happier than he was when he was younger and seems fit and healthy, I am not sure whether he will do another huge European tour so our paths may never cross.
Never mind, I still have this one CD and all my memories of late night parties playing his music. Who knows I may even buy the whole collection again with my dooyoo earnings.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 Sisters Of Mercy
3 So Long Marianne
4 Bird On The Wire
5 Lady Midnight
7 Hey That's No Way To Say Goodbye
8 Famous Blue Raincoat
9 Last Year's Man
10 Chelsea Hotel No 2
11 Who By Fire
12 Take This Longing