In his excellent 1997 biography of the Canadian poet, novelist, and singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, Ira B. Nadel relates an anecdote that seems too perfectly symbolic to be true: A teenaged Cohen, after reading a book on hypnotism, successfully hypnotizes and undresses the family maid. This is the stuff of parable, presaging the hands-on mysticism, conflicted morality, and voracious lust that would come to define Cohen's art. The story also speaks to the peculiar effect of his music-- few singers leave us feeling so mesmerized and vulnerable.
On paper, Cohen's music is astoundingly simple. Because he became well-known as a poet and novelist in his 20s, there's a popular misconception that he didn't begin to play music until he started releasing albums in his 30s. But he became infatuated with the guitar at an early age, played in a country band called the Buckskin Boys at McGill University, and accompanied his poetry readings with live jazz, inspired by the Beat poets for whom he was a little too aristocratic to be taken seriously. He didn't become known as a musician until his 30s, but he was moving toward it his whole life, in an attempt to put his poetry where he thought it belonged-- with the people, not the academy.
Because of this long gestation period, Cohen's music seemed to emerge fully formed, and the qualities that dominate his first three, newly reissued albums can be succinctly cataloged. There's his reedy baritone-- a humble, melancholy instrument and an inviting source of warmth; there's his unique guitar style-- most of his songs are built from delicate webs of musky, finger-picked flamenco or broad, awkward chord progressions; and there are his lyrics, tracing out the hidden contours of love, lust, sex, religion, responsibility, and history through an inflexibly personal lens.
There's also the uncanny ambiance of the songs, the almost brutal frugality of which is offset by calliope, bells, keyboards, strings, horns, and Jew's harp. While Cohen was resistant to such embellishments and particularly displeased with John Simon's arrangements on his debut, they've worn into the songs' creases. These reissues do a good job of bringing out the instrumentation without crowding Cohen's voice or tainting the music's dark thrall, and an early version included on Songs from a Room reveals that "Bird on a Wire" isn't quite "Bird on a Wire" without those drafty keyboards pushing in under it.
This is enough to explain why these albums are good, but what makes them great is the ongoing search for personal truth and spiritual grace that they express, and how they manage to always embody both sides of their thematic coin. Everything is married to its dark twin: Freedom and shelter in "The Stranger Song", laughter and tears in "So Long, Marianne", salvation and destruction in "Joan of Arc", whom Cohen often used as a symbol for spiritual discipline and the power of womanhood.
We find this same dual nature in Cohen himself: Born to a stern religious father and a bohemian mother, Cohen's sensibility was forged in the tension between the liberal and the conservative. He's been a religious sensualist, a student of police work and law, bourgeois outsider poet, and disciplined dabbler in marijuana and LSD. While he emerged as a Dylan-inspired folkie, his music was anachronistic and only nominally political, less concerned with the timely issues of the day than the timeless issues of the spirit. Cohen was interested in "The Old Revolution", with its outmoded concepts of chivalry, and its religious (not secular) imperatives. The political ferment of the 60s manifests only obliquely, as in "Story of Isaac", which is as much about Cohen's awe of his father's stern religion as it is about the sacrifice of youths upon the altar of war.
It's appropriate then that Cohen's songs present him to us in far-flung locales. "Famous Blue Raincoat" finds him in a cold New York hotel, catching snippets of music wafting up from Clinton Street. In "So Long, Marianne", he's probably on Hydra, a pale spectre amid the Grecian island's greenery and whitewashed terraces. In "Suzanne", eating Chinese oranges on the St. Lawrence river in Montreal. In "Diamonds in the Mine", checking his empty mailbox on an isolated farm outside of Nashville.
All three of these albums, despite their musical simplicity, are leavened with the wisdom that comes from such a diverse existence. 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. John Hammond, the album's original producer, fell ill during the process and was replaced by John Simon; the two bonus cuts are from the Hammond sessions. "Store Room" emulates the restrained urgency of "Teachers" while "Blessed is the Memory" is more prayerful; both feature rather incongruous Ray Manzarek-style organs.
A long-time country music fan, Cohen would travel to Nashville to record his next two albums. 1969's Songs From a Room is similar to his debut: Just as Songs of Leonard Cohen replaced original producer John Hammond, who had signed Cohen to Columbia (as well as Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan) with John Simon (then just off the Band's Music From Big Pink and Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends), this album was started with the Byrds' David Crosby and finished with Dylan producer Bob Johnston. It also contains a number of Cohen's signature tunes, including "Story of Isaac", cover song "The Partisan", "Lady Midnight", and the seminal "Bird on a Wire", whose iconic opening lines ("Like a bird on a wire/ Like a drunk in a midnight choir/ I have tried, in my way, to be free") were cited by Kris Kristofferson as his desired epitaph. It seems a direct continuation of his debut, and in truth, the debut seems superior simply for having come first.
Of course, any seeker can become lost, and on 1971's Songs of Love and Hate, Cohen shows signs of disorientation. Though he's backed by a crew of ace musicians, including Charlie Daniels on fiddle, the record is thinner and less even than the first two. In contrast to his early precision, Cohen takes some wild swings that miss the mark, such as the weird Santa Claus imagery on "Dress Rehearsal Rag" and the uncomfortably strained singing style he adopts on "Diamonds in the Mine", which might be chalked up to an insecurity about his voice encouraged by his negative press. It's also a more blatantly depressive album than the first two, lacking hopeful equanimity, and does indeed reflect a period of great depression and uncertainty in Cohen's life.
But elsewhere on Love and Hate, he's in his finest, subtlest form-- "Avalanche", "Last Year's Man", and "Famous Blue Raincoat" alone justify the album's classic status. Despite its relative flaws, it's an indispensable document in the development of one of the 20th century's most enduring artists. Cohen potently captures the pull between safety and the unknown, love and freedom, spirituality and sensuality: a panoramic view of human experience, rendered through the work of one exceptional artist.