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Blue Debut

The birth of a ladies' man: How Leonard Cohen became the world-weary roué of the hippie age.

****1/2

LEONARD COHEN
The Songs of Leonard Cohen
1968, Sony/Legacy

***

LEONARD COHEN
Songs From a Room
1969, Sony/Legacy

***1/2

LEONARD COHEN
Songs of Love and Hate
1971, Sony/Legacy

If you think Leonard Cohen is old now, try to imagine how old he was when he was young. In 1966, folk chanteuse Judy Collins turned the thirty-two-year-old into a hot rumor by recording his poem-set-to-music "Suzanne." Cohen had two novels and four slim volumes of verse on his dossier. He sported suit jackets, short hair and a formidable five o'clock shadow, and he hailed, ooh la la, from Montreal. No wonder hippies ten years his junior ate up his world-weary roué act.

At the time, no one would have dreamed there was anything lithe or lyrical about Cohen's charcoal monotone. But though he certainly plays his seniority for seductive savoir-faire, Cohen still sounds capable of various positions on his first three albums. The problem is how much of his wad he blows on his 1968 debut. Whatever one thinks of John Simon's production, which Cohen considered glitzy and others found droll, the tunes remain surefire four decades later -- only the unfinished-seeming "Winter Lady" fails to reintroduce itself with a warm handshake and a winning wink. But after the great, defeated cri de coeur "Bird on a Wire," 1969's Songs From a Room proves as desiccated melodically as it is instrumentally, especially on political material Cohen didn't necessarily have his heart in. Two years later, Songs of Love and Hate rebounds, with Paul Buckmaster orchestrations shoring songs up when they falter.

So what do Cohen's undoubted craft and canny self-projection add up to? After all, the one great theme of this early work is a romantic melancholy he shares in rough outline with many page poets and countless half-assed singer-songwriters. The secret is simply that Cohen does it better. There isn't a wryer ice-queen kiss-off than the relatively minor "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong," and classics like "So Long, Marianne" and "Famous Blue Raincoat" wrote the book on the doomed twentieth-century bohemian love affair. Most of his fans will never bed a woman with legs like those of Leonard's ladies (or possess same). But as voyeur fodder goes, this is deep, witty and enduring stuff.

Rolling Stone, Apr. 5, 2007