If there is one thing that Leonard Cohen teaches us, it’s that being happy is completely overrated. No matter what state you are in, exuberant, joyous, or just plain content, the opening guitar line on “Avalanche,” the first track on Songs of Love and Hate, immediately instills a palpable feeling of dread. And that’s the best part about the entire album. It can alter your mood so violently that by the end of the it you are left stunned, wondering how nine simple pieces of music could change how you feel so drastically.
Cohen was a published poet and novelist before setting his sights on music. In the ’50s, he tried his hand at selling songs but failed and I know why. Beautiful, poetic and, most importantly, depressing lyrics don’t make one a star and, while Cohen’s lyrics are astonishing, it’s his voice that makes Songs of Love and Hate, and really all of his work in general, that much more special. His voice is comparable to Lou Reed’s in its monotone tunelessness, but the difference between Cohen and Reed is that Reed sounds passionless and too cool. And it most definitely works for Reed (Reed wouldn’t be Reed without his pretensions), but you never know whether he is being earnest or whether it is all ironic posturing. Cohen, on the other hand, always sounds sincere, probably because he usually sounds kind of drunk. “Diamonds in the Mine,” is the perfect example. Take the lyrics away and it could double as a Tammy Wynette song (which isn’t as surprising when you learn that Charlie “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” Daniels plays on the album).
In spite of any country leanings, Cohen’s on-the-verge-of-yelling vocal delivery is a precursor to punk in that it shows incredible passion for what he believes in. Instead of the No Future mantra of the Sex Pistols or the “I just wanna sniff some glue” stance of The Ramones, Cohen fights for his own issue: misery. Spitting out lines like “Well, you tell me that your lover has a broken limb/ You say you’re kind of restless now and it’s on account of him/ Well, I saw the man in question, it was just the other night/ He was eating up a lady where the lions and Christians fight,” with such intensity that it would make the likes of Johnny Rotten and Richard Hell blush.
While many pop lyricists are given the title of Poet, very few actually live up to it. Despite my above sentiments, Cohen is first and foremost a poet and it’s apparent throughout Songs of Love and Hate. The best singer-songwriters have a degree of universality to their work—everyone should be able to relate and, like many singers/poets before him, Cohen’s lyrics can border on the grandiose, a little too euphuistic to be speaking for the hoi polloi. But Cohen’s lyrics sometimes just don’t fit with the music—an extra syllable here, too many words there—but this makes Cohen’s songs unique. These quirks become the things that make the music special—they make Cohen that much more human. But it doesn’t prove that Cohen is a poor musician.
While Cohen is lauded for lyrical content more than anything else, he is an accomplished musician who picked up a guitar at age 13 to, of course, impress a girl, and his playing is underrated. In the liner notes, Cohen is only billed as “acoustic guitar,” and his use of orchestration—not too overwhelming, not too quiet—on songs such as “Avalanche,” “Last Year’s Man” and “Love Calls you by your Name” is nothing short of genius. “Last Year’s Man” and its follower, “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” happen to boast a child chorus, a tactic XTC would later employ on “Dear God” with similar consequences. The child backup singers just make Cohen’s songs that much more haunting.
The hands-down, most heartbreaking moment in an album of heartbreaking moments is “Famous Blue Raincoat.” The song is a letter to an at-first unknown recipient now living a hermitic existence. But as it goes on, a story is revealed. This is a letter of forgiveness. John Doe came to Cohen in a time of crisis and, in the process, well, fucked Cohen’s wife. “And you treated my woman to a flake of your life / And when she came back she was nobody’s wife,” Cohen sings. If that’s not one of the most beautiful lyrics about infidelity ever, then I don’t know what is. Cohen’s wife finding solace in the arms of another man is not what makes this song heartbreaking, though. It’s that Cohen admits that this man needed to sleep with his wife, a man he refers to as “my brother, my killer.” He sings, “Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes/ I thought it was there for good so I never tried.” Whether Cohen is singing this line with a hint of irony or not doesn’t matter. It all comes down to the fact that Cohen isn’t enough for “Jane” and he never will be. All he wants is his brother back.
The last lyrics on Songs of Love and Hate, in “Joan of Arc,” sum up the album eerily well:
“I saw her wince, I saw her cry
I saw the glory in her eye
Myself I long for love and light
But must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?”