Classic Americana Albums: Leonard Cohen “The Songs of Leonard Cohen”

Columbia, 1967

Leonard Cohen fans don’t have a community. There is one in every group of friends, and they always want to play you the most depressing thing you’ve ever heard, and that is very rarely appealing. So how do people get into Leonard Cohen? For this writer, it was by stealth. Late one evening, after a few glasses of wine, someone put on this record and just like that, this writer (secretly) became a fan. Leonard Cohen is a poet and, pulling no emotional punches is not always the most comfortable of listens. Still, he stands square alongside Hank Williams, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, and Woody Guthrie, and for that reason ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen‘ is a classic Americana album.

Songs of Leonard Cohen‘ is a debut album that would lead to fourteen studio releases and eight live albums; it was the beginning of a career that would span half a century. Like countless excellent Americana albums, this one was, to my massive surprise, produced in Nashville! As the name suggests, Cohen was Jewish and raised in Montreal (so not even American, but we at Americana UK don’t let a little thing like borders bother us). He had left home with an inheritance from his late father in the latter half of the sixties and published five books of poems before heading to Nashville, where he met Judy Collins, who steered him to songwriting. (Thanks, Judy!) In 1967, at age 33, ‘The Songs of Leonard Cohen‘ had arrived, earned him an RIAA gold record and began a series of highly acclaimed albums: ‘Songs from a Room‘ (1969), ‘Songs of Love and Hate‘(1971) and ‘New Skin for the Old Ceremony‘ (1974). The album is raw, beautiful, and while he may have used more than three chords, it is the truth.

Cohen’s lyrics are poems. Each song tells a story or a snapshot of a moment, and while some are universal love tales, others have interesting backstories. When Cohen played the Isle of Wight in 1970, he told the crowd that he had written ‘One of Us Cannot Be Wrong‘ in a grim room in the Chelsea Hotel when he was “coming off amphetamine and pursuing a blond lady that I met in a Nazi poster”. And it is this song that he places at the end, the last bars we hear whistling while a man shouts faintly in the background – a powerful ending.

The love songs are timeless and rated as some of the best of all time. ‘Suzanne’ was ranked 41st on Pitchfork’s “Top 200 Songs of the 1960s”, while ‘So Long, Marianne‘ was also featured on the list in 190th place.

Film and television have countlessly featured songs from the album. Since their release, ‘ ‘Suzanne‘ and ‘So Long Marianne‘ have featured countlessly in film and television. In 1971, film director Robert Altman (Nashville (1975)) featured ‘The Stranger Song’, ‘Winter Lady’, and ‘Sisters of Mercy’, in ‘McCabe & Mrs Miller‘. Like this writer, Altman heard the record at a party and decided that was all the music he needed for the movie.

Poetry aside, Cohen is an accomplished guitar player. His picking is simple but exactly right. He plays few notes, but every one is enough. Leonard Cohen was a self-taught acoustic guitarist who switched to classical guitar after being introduced to flamenco. These varied roots can be heard to the end of his career. The album features acoustic and nylon-stringed guitars making for a softer sound that contrasts his sonorous but almost atonal voice.

Is it Americana? If a Jewish, son of an immigrant, singing the truth about his life is not Americana, then we don’t know what is.

In ‘Teachers‘, he sings, “I was handsome, I was strong, I knew the words of every song. Did my singing please you? No, the words you sang were wrong” Leonard, we disagree: every word you sang was perfect.

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