Holiday Gift Guide Review: Leonard Cohen, “The Complete Columbia Albums Collection”
Welcome to our Second Disc Holiday Gift Guide, in which we review some titles we might have missed over the past few weeks! The titles we’re spotlighting in this occasional series just might be candidates on your own holiday shopping list!
It’s hard to believe that Leonard Cohen was once tarred with the infamous “New Dylan” brush, even though he was in rather rarefied company alongside other “New Dylans” like Loudon Wainwright III and even Bruce Springsteen. Sure, both Mr. Cohen and the former Mr. Zimmerman shared non-traditional voices and a gift for truly literate lyrics. Both made their recording debuts on Columbia Records, and even shared a producer, Bob Johnston. But the similarities largely end there. When Songs of Leonard Cohen was issued in late 1967, Dylan himself was still the new Dylan! Currently about to enter his 50th year as a recording artist, Bob Dylan barely had five years under his belt in 1967. Thanks to the herculean efforts of Columbia Records and Legacy, Leonard Cohen’s own 44-year career can now be assessed in one remarkable collection sure to inspire a breed of “new Cohens.”
Leonard Cohen: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection (Columbia/Legacy 88697 87184 2) is a 17-album, 18-disc set offering the complete live and studio albums of one of Canada’s favorite sons. From 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen to 2010’s Songs from the Road, the box set contains the arc of the uncompromising career of one of the few men in rock who can truly be called a poet. As with the most of Legacy’s Complete Albums Collection box sets, the emphasis is on the music. The sturdy if no-frills cardboard box contains mini-LP replica jackets for each disc (every one adorned with the red Columbia label) and a 36-page booklet containing a brief essay by novelist Pico Iyer as well as credits for every album.
The one thing missing that would immeasurably enhance a set such as this would be a lyric booklet; while Cohen’s melodies deserve due credit, the man is one of rock’s purest poets, and his words are paramount. By the 1967 release of the simply-titled Songs of Leonard Cohen, he was already an established author, but his early efforts included here make it clear that he didn’t enter music as a dilettante.
A seriousness of purpose, and a somber atmosphere, marks Cohen’s early album efforts. Songs of Leonard Cohen employed subtle orchestrations to flesh out the composer’s stark melodies, while producer John Simon brought out the baroque and folk-rock flourishes here and there. One could even imagine the Mamas and the Papas on the backing vocals to “So Long, Marianne.” Cohen explores the foibles of love and lust in this dark collection of songs, with frequently spiritual overtones; the first song on the first album of the box set, “Suzanne,” was likely Cohen’s most famous song until “Hallejulah” came along, and it remains a perfectly crafted character study about a mysterious woman who still spellbinds. Religious references abound (“Suzanne,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “The Stranger Song”) as does a percolating anger; the darker moments could be offset by Cohen’s dry, infrequently emotive vocals, but his disaffected vocal actually demands concentration and enhances the haunting nature of the songs, even in their gentler moments (“Travelin’ Lady”).
Cohen’s first three albums are often considered of a piece, although each of these albums has its strengths and unique character. Bob Johnston encouraged a less-intricately arranged approach to Cohen’s 1969 follow-up, Songs from a Room, which is highlighted by the stunning “Bird on the Wire.” The presence of Nashville session musicians including Charlie Daniels (yes, that Charlie Daniels!) lends a unique air to these albums, as well. Cohen’s on-the-nose album names continued with his third, 1970’s Songs of Love and Hate. And yes, you’ll find those, but throughout the albums here, you’ll also note songs of suicide, of despair, of pain, of death, of addiction. (Love and Hate’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” later gave its title to Jennifer Warnes’ acclaimed album of Cohen compositions, while “Dress Rehearsal Rag” is a fascinating, twisting song that is far weightier than its title would indicate: “But you’ve used up all your coupons /except the one that seems to be written on your wrist along with several thousand dreams/Now Santa Claus comes forward, that’s a razor in his mitt; and he puts on his dark glasses and he shows you where to hit.”) Cohen’s favorite recurring themes come sharply into focus on The Complete Collection. It’s a great luxury to travel with the artist through this chronological set, illuminating those previously overlooked avenues.
After that initial three-year burst of creativity, Cohen’s studio albums arrived with less frequency. Only eight more such albums have followed in the ensuing 40+ years. Over these subsequent collections, you’ll hear Cohen aging gracefully into his voice, which sounded old and wizened before its time. With producer and arranger John Lissauer (who added greater instrumental textures including strings, woodwinds, banjo, mandolin, trombone, trumpets and more), he returned for 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony. One of Cohen’s best albums, New Skin challenged listeners with more oblique lyrics about, well, love and hate, but even when the lyrics are oblique, the master craftsman gets the message across with his use of big, bold imagery. Sexual, religious and cultural references all abound in songs like “Is This What You Wanted” (“You were the promise at dawn, I was the morning after/You were Jesus Christ my Lord, I was the money lender. You were the sensitive woman, I was the very reverend Freud/You were the manual orgasm, I was the dirty little boy”) and “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” which frankly draws on Cohen’s relationship with Janis Joplin: “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel, you were talking so brave and so sweet, giving me head on the unmade bed, while the limousines wait in the street.” Cohen’s honesty is disarming, with the song’s final line the equivalent of a punch in the stomach: “I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best, I can’t keep track of each fallen robin. I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel, that’s all, I don’t even think of you that often.” Janis Ian joins Cohen to provide backing vocals on this most purely musical of Cohen’s albums.
After the jump, Cohen meets Phil Spector, embraces the eighties, and emerges as an elder statesman of music!
The Complete Collection will also allow you to revisit (and finally in sparkling remastered sound!) the most bizarre album ever recorded by Cohen. 1978’s Death of a Ladies’ Man teamed Cohen with Phil Spector, who marshaled the forces of Nino Tempo and the remnants of the L.A. Wrecking Crew for this incredibly offbeat effort. Entirely co-written by the pair (who reportedly wrote 15 tracks from which the final album’s eight songs were culled), it’s a hedonistic affair, or an exercise in darkly-tinted nostalgia. Over a Wall of Sound that’s less polished and more sludgy than you might remember, Steve Douglas still contributes big, honking sax solos, while Cohen croons bluntly over the backing provided by Hal Blaine, Don Randi and Ray Pohlman. “I said look, you don’t know me now/But very soon you will/So won’t you let me see your naked body?,” he asks on “Memories” in a sea of thick echo, prominent choirs and brass bleats. In “Paper Thin Hotel,” Cohen dryly intones, “You are the naked angel in my heart/You are the woman with her legs apart.” Despite the in-your-face debauchery, the songs are not without merit, and frequently offer evocative imagery on par with Cohen’s best. “Frankie Laine was singing ‘Jezebel’/I pinned an iron cross to my lapel” tells you everything you need to know about the song’s narrator in one opening line. Then there’s the rock and roll party of “Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On,” in which Cohen and Spector are joined by a chorus including Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg! Over a cacophonous arrangement, the singers sound unhinged: “You can’t shake it, or break it with your Motown!/You can’t melt it down in the rain!” The near-parody of the country-and-western “Fingerprints” is another freewheeling track (“I touched you once too often, now I don’t know who I am/My fingerprints were missing, when I wiped away the jam”) on this album that’s unlike any other.
Recent Songs (1979) and Various Positions (1984) might be the most overlooked titles in Cohen’s catalogue. The former returns Cohen to a folk setting after the Hollywood glam of Death of a Ladies Man, while the latter sees him embracing glossy, synthesizer-laden 1980s production styles. Jennifer Warnes provides guest vocals on both albums, but is most prominent on Various Positions. Columbia initially rejected the album for U.S. distribution when Cohen presented it to the label, but it was absorbed into his Columbia catalogue for its 1990 CD release. Its “Dance Me to the End of Love” has become a minor standard, but it’s been eclipsed by another song off the album, “Hallejulah.” Like so many of Cohen’s other songs, the sober, solemn “Hallejulah” featured many biblical allusions in its original version. It was greeted with little fanfare on the album, but when John Cale recorded a cover version in 1991, people started to pay attention. Cale’s version, in turn, inspired Jeff Buckley in 1994 to record what might be the most famous rendition. Buckley’s version has been the starting point for countless recordings and performances on mainstream television programs as diverse as American Idol, ER, The O.C. and The West Wing! With the late-blooming “Hallejulah,” Cohen made arguably his most well-known contribution to the standard songbook, and also earned himself a healthy annuity.
1988’s I’m Your Man could be said to have ushered in a golden age for Cohen that continues to this day. Awash with synth-pop stylings, the album is surprisingly accessible. Among its standouts are the exciting title track and the menacingly-intoned (but danceable!) “First We Take Manhattan,” which could have emerged from the score of a dark musical: “They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom/For trying to change the system from within/I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them/First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin!” Hollywood latched onto many of the songs from 1992’s The Future, with three of the album’s tracks featured on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s controversial Natural Born Killers. In an unusual move, Cohen even provided his own spin on Irving Berlin’s “Always,” turning the familiar 1925 love song into a deep-voiced blues with a hint of gospel. Cohen sat out the rest of the 1990s, returning for a set entirely co-written with Sharon Robinson and simply called Ten New Songs (2001). 2004’s Dear Heather placed even more emphasis on female vocals, long a part of Cohen’s musical DNA and epitomized by Jennifer Warnes’ contributions to his catalogue. On Dear Heather, Cohen played more with the idea of reciting poetry over musical backgrounds, and reworked “The Tennessee Waltz” much as he had “Always.” Dear Heather remains the artist’s last studio album as of this writing, but another one is on the way. Old Ideas (a title Cohen has kicked around for years) is currently scheduled for release by Columbia at the end of January, 2012.
All six of Cohen’s live albums are here, too, covering a wide swath of his career, between 1970 (Live at the Isle of Wight, issued in 2009) and 2009 (Songs from the Road, issued in 2010). The most definitive of these concert documents is Live in London, a 2-CD set recorded in 2008 and included in full. Even if Cohen has taken to the road partially as the result of well-publicized financial troubles, these live performances make clear that he is enjoying his current role as an elder statesman of folk and rock. He inhabits these songs even more fully in their varied live settings.
The Complete Columbia Albums Collection is also available in a truncated edition containing only the studio albums. It’s titled, simply enough, The Complete Studio Albums Collection! The full Albums Collection, however, is the way to go, painting the definitive portrait of the artist both on stage and in the studio. Mark Wilder and Bruce Dickinson are the primary mastering engineers for the box set, and they’ve worked wonders on the albums receiving their first-ever upgrades.
The most serious drawback to the set is that bonus tracks issued on the Dickinson-produced remasters of Cohen’s first three albums have been dropped from this collection. (Some of the Complete Albums box sets have followed this practice, while other sets have indeed retained previously-issued bonus material. The lack of consistency from title to title can be maddedning!) That means that those buying this hefty box still need to hold onto the remasters of Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs from a Room and Songs of Love and Hate.
As a monumental tower of song and retrospective of an uncompromising artist and writer, Leonard Cohen’s The Complete Columbia Albums Collection simply cannot be beat.