Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Leonard Cohen

  • Songs of Love and Hate [Columbia, 1971] A-
  • Live Songs [Columbia, 1973] B+
  • New Skin for Old Ceremony [Columbia, 1974] A-
  • The Best of Leonard Cohen [Columbia, 1975] A-
  • Death of a Ladies Man [Warner Bros., 1977] B-
  • Recent Songs [Columbia, 1979] B
  • Various Positions [Passport, 1985] B+
  • I'm Your Man [Columbia, 1988] A-
  • The Future [Columbia, 1992] A-
  • Cohen Live! [Columbia, 1994] Neither
  • Ten New Songs [Columbia, 2001] A-
  • Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979 [Columbia, 2001] Choice Cuts
  • The Essential Leonard Cohen [Columbia, 2002] A
  • Dear Heather [Columbia, 2004] B
  • Live in London [Columbia, 2009] A
  • Old Ideas [Columbia, 2012] A-
  • Popular Problems [Columbia, 2014] B+
  • Can't Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour [Columbia/Legacy, 2015] A-
  • You Want It Darker [Columbia, 2016] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Songs of Love and Hate [Columbia, 1971]
There are no bad songs on this album, and from Paul Buckmaster to acoustic strum, Bob Johnston's production fits each individually. I know, you wonder who cares. Well, I don't trust Cohen's melancholy anapests any more than I do his deadpan despair; there are plenty of songwriters both naive and arty, as well as page poets, with a fresher sense of language. But the poets can't read like Cohen, the songwriters rarely combine his craft and his maturity, and the man can really project. His bare voices and melodies shade in his tenderness and self-mockery ("I who have no need" indeed), creating a dramatic context in which his posture becomes as credible as Denise Levertov's or Mick Jagger's. Granted, its uses are limited--best for late nights alone. Recommended to those who are turned off by Christie's opium fantasy in McCabe and Mrs. Miller but moved by Beatty's snow trek. A-

Live Songs [Columbia, 1973]
It's strange to encounter Cohen in the company of a large group--when he leads a thirteen minute singalong based on a blind man's placard he risks turning into the Pete Seeger of romantic existentialism. And I could do without the shaky guitar improv and the revival of "Passing Thru," though both are tolerable. But it so happens that all five of the self-covers on this album are from Songs From a Room, which I've always thought could use redoing. And eventually the singalong becomes a yellalong, which is much better. B+

New Skin for Old Ceremony [Columbia, 1974]
That miraculously intimate voice has become more expressive and confident over the years without losing its beguiling flat amateurishness. Some of the new songs are less than memorable, but the settings, by John Lissauer, have the bizarre feel of John Simon's "overproduction" on Cohen's first album, which I always believed suited his studied vulgarity perfectly. A-

The Best of Leonard Cohen [Columbia, 1975]
I've always found "Sisters of Mercy" unnecessarily (and uncharacteristically) icky--you can read their address by the moon, eh? But if like me you admire his records more than you play them, this is the one you'll pull off the shelf. A-

Death of a Ladies Man [Warner Bros., 1977]
The bad music here can't be blamed on Phil Spector's melodies--Cohen has never posed as a particularly tuneful guy himself. And the main thing wrong with Spector's settings, banal though they are, is that they lack doors. Ordinarily, Cohen whispers, murmurs, whines, croaks, and even screams through the music. Here he has to try and sing over it, using more or less normal volume and timbre. B-

Recent Songs [Columbia, 1979]
Cohen's arrangements are even more detailed and surprising than John Lissauer's, and Jennifer Warnes is the most valuable backup singer since Emmylou Harris. "The Traitor" is a minor masterpiece. And in general this record's take on courtly love in the swingers' era packs more ironic intelligence than you would have thought possible. Or necessary, unfortunately. Cohen's gift for elementary hummables seems to deteriorate as his writing evolves from the conversational toward the allegorical. Irony or no irony, "rages of fragrance" and "rags of remorse" sound suspiciously like bad poetry even when they're sung, and that's not now it's supposed to work. B

Various Positions [Passport, 1985]
With a new crop of beautiful losers arising out of the latest bohemia as inexorably as ailanthus out of a vacant lot, the man who wrote the book is worth attending, because he's not bitter. After all, righteous anger has never been his long suit, and what does he have to be bitter about? At fifty, he's still living comfortably off the fruits of his spiritual torment. Of course, not every loser is so talented, or resilient, The hymn "If It Be Your Will" and the fable "The Captain" are as rich and twisted as anything in his career, and "The Law" does justice to his patented romantic irony, which by now has a soothing glow. If you're sick of hearing him whisper in your ear that to be a roue is a religious calling, so be it--me, I think this is a better advertisement for middle-aged sex than Dynasty. B+

I'm Your Man [Columbia, 1988]
A European best-seller from the Francophone capital of the Western Hemisphere, Cohen isn't the grizzled folk-rock parvenu we take him for. He works a far older and more honorable tradition, that of the French chansonnier, the singing poet who'll cheerfully appropriate any simple music that fits his meter without giving a second thought to how authentic or commercialized it might be. Because words are his stock in trade, Cohen's music rarely obtrudes no matter how classy or schlocky its usages. So despite what some consider a misguided attempt to yoke stark instrumentation and femme chorus, his latest recording seems no more or less natural/unnatural than his previous offerings, and the poems are his most consistent in a decade. Envoi: "But you'll be hearing from me, baby, long after I'm gone/I'll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song." A-

The Future [Columbia, 1992]
Sometime between ages 54 and 58, Cohen appears to have lost his voice. Where once his whisper was the essence of intimacy, now he's singing loud and saying less for longer. Which ends up not mattering because the music is his best since John Lissauer split in 1979. Even the instrumental is satisfying minor Cohen, kind of like the sexy stuff. The political stuff--the horror-stricken "The Future," the hope-stricken "Democracy"--is major. And the eight-minute sendup of Irving Berlin's 10-line "Always" is a pomo triumph: the hoarsely pitchless singing, the soul-on-demand of the backup girls, and the thudding beat are all travesties, all acts of love. At first you think, Sure, Lenny--"Always." Endless love, just your style. But as the minutes wear on you begin to think he may mean it, and then you begin to worry. Holy shit--is this old drunk going to be on my case for the rest of his unnatural life? Would he settle for a lost weekend? A-

Cohen Live! [Columbia, 1994] Neither

Ten New Songs [Columbia, 2001]
In February, Cohen put out the presciently entitled Field Commander Cohen--recorded live in 1979, when he could still carry a tune if he brought his luggage wheels. It sounded too suave somehow, too sure of its next whiskey bar. But by August, well before history put in an emergency call for voices of doom, the sepulchral croak here seemed spot on. Breaking a nine-year silence, the first four tracks have nothing to do with history except insofar as history is in league with death. But they're as powerful as any he's written--especially "In My Secret Life," about hiding from your conscience in the crevices of your good intentions, and "Here It Is," about the ultimate futility of all hello goodbye. And although he couldn't have known how close to the bone the finale would cut, try these two couplets: "For what's left of our religion/I lift my voice and pray" and "May the lights in The Land of Plenty/Shine on the truth some day." Both beat "God bless America" by a country mile. Well, don't they? A-

Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979 [Columbia, 2001]
"Field Commander Cohen" Choice Cuts

The Essential Leonard Cohen [Columbia, 2002]
Nothing's perfect, and most of his albums are worth purchasing separately, but at least this double CD picks all the indelibles off the supple 1968 Songs of Leonard Cohen, and half of them off the stark 2001 Ten New Songs. Also, true peace-on-earthers will appreciate the depressive gesture, as well as a seasonal party game: a Bush-era rewrite of the cultural-revolutionary threnody "First We Take Manhattan." Take it from: "They sentenced me to 30 days of rehab/For trying to have my coke and eat it too/I'll show those pricks the silver spoon that we have/First we take the statehouse, then we take D.C." A

Dear Heather [Columbia, 2004]
I know it's hard to get a grip on, kids, but people keep getting older. They don't just reach some inconceivable benchmark--50 or, God, 60--and stop, Old in some absolute sense. The bones, the joints, the genitals, the juices, the delivery systems, and eventually the mind continue to break down, at an unpredictable pace in unpredictable ways. Leonard Cohen has had No Voice since he began recording at 33. But he has more No Voice today, at 70, than he did on Ten New Songs, at 67--the tenderness in his husky whisper of 2001, tenderness the way steak is tender, has dried up in his whispered husk of 2004, rendering his traditional dependence on the female backups who love him more grotesque. Nor does noblesse oblige underlie all the adaptations and settings--Lord Byron, Patti Page, a Quebecois folk song, various dead Canadian poets, himself. Rather they reflect the same diminished inspiration that makes you wonder whether his 9/11 song is enigmatic or merely inconclusive. Not only do I like the guy, I'm Old enough to identify with him. But I doubt I'll ever be Old enough to identify with this. On her deathbed, my 96-year-old mother-in-law was still relying on Willie Nelson's Stardust. That's more like it. B

Live in London [Columbia, 2009]
What a strange and inspiring story. Cohen had reached a state of permanent equilibrium by the year 2000, a revered cult artist in his late sixties with a multimillion-dollar catalogue and a mild case of agoraphobia. Musically he remained fairly productive, but detached, as befitted a Zen priest. Only then his longtime manager sold his publishing out from under his nose and absconded with the proceeds, and at 70 he found himself down to his last 150 grand. So in early 2008, aged 73, he launched a money-making world tour that has continued ever since. Offered a ticket by a friend, I walked in a fond skeptic and walked out a convert. The miraculous show I witnessed, where Cohen literally skipped on and off stage, lasted even longer than this two-and-a-half-hour double-CD, which will now be my Cohen of choice even though its songs are pretty much duplicated on the excellent Essential Leonard Cohen. The band is on it, the backup singers are solicitous, and Cohen's husk of a voice has been juiced up by the exercise. But the difference isn't the performances per se. It's the audience interactions. Gracious to a fault, Cohen is no longer detached. As practiced as his profuse thank yous are, his gratitude for the adoration of his cult is palpable not just in his stage talk but in the warmth and good humor with which he celebrates an oeuvre that no longer makes him a dime. Though I'd say it's less, Hank Williams may still be a hundred floors above him in the tower of song. But Cohen is no longer wondering how lonely things can get. A

Old Ideas [Columbia, 2012]
So subtly that it takes forever to sink in and so slowly that reading along is a must, Cohen coughs up his first studio album in eight years, meaning his next is due when he's 85 unless he dies first, which seems to be his bet. Except maybe for Johnny Cash's, no death album has ever come across quite this somber. Since Cohen generated the succulent 2009 Live in London as well as the prunelike 2010 Songs From the Road during the never-ending tour that intervened, it's conceivable that he's playing up the fragility of his crumbling baritone to back that bet as the usual panoply of handmaidens provides soul, sweetening, and breathing room. But give it its long chance and you'll find that not only is Cohen's sense of humor alive and kicking from the first words, in which Cohen famously ventriloquizes for Jahweh himself, but that the final song is keyed to the refrain "You want to change the way I make love/I want to leave it alone." Naturally, what he wants to leave alone is left ambiguous--his feckless, lubricious, needy, expert way of making love, or making love itself? If the former, what's this "saved by a blessed fatigue"? And if the latter, what's this "her braids and her blouse all undone"? Eight years younger than Cohen myself, I wouldn't be surprised if it's both, and don't look forward to the relevant critical insights the future will almost certainly afford me. A-

Popular Problems [Columbia, 2014]
Exercise lubricated his voice for a while, but it's dried out again. And when you're croaking the way Cohen is croaking--pun actively regretted, Cohen if anyone has earned the right to call his impending death by however dignified a name he deems appropriate--it takes more than a corps of angels and a Quebecquois Madonna collaborator to turn your verse into song. I admire and when I concentrate enjoy most of these tracks, in particular the spiritually advanced "You Got Me Singing," the fondly remembered "My Oh My," and the consciously complicit "Almost Like the Blues." But the only one I love is "Slow," which is not about how considerately he makes love if that's what he's making these days. It's about how unhurriedly he approaches the death that impends for us all. B+

Can't Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour [Columbia/Legacy, 2015]
Trust your Zen uncle to rehash a rehash the classy way. Although half these ten live songs are so old they precede the scam that cost him the royalties on his 20th-century catalogue, he not only performs them anyway but resuscitates relative obscurities, which in the case of the "Field Commander Cohen"-"I Can't Forget" opener have more relevance now than when he was a mere 50. On two new ones he's feeling too feeble to make love and too pissed to make nice. On the George Jones cover, his bass is just as deep if not as puissant as that superhuman's. And capping it all off is a monologue about the stages of aging, which he's copyrighted just in case some scamster gets any funny ideas. A-

You Want It Darker [Columbia, 2016]
A few weeks before this was released, Cohen deflected rumors of his imminent passing by telling reporters that he intended to live forever; a few weeks after, he cemented his well-earned reputation as an incorrigibly courteous liar by dying. Thus he transformed how these eight songs would be heard and remembered, and accentuated how shrewdly his living will's gravity, austerity, and sparse wit dovetail with its thematic and emotional preoccupations. Feeling impossibly frail and weary, the 82-year-old Cohen parried with a thoroughgoing renunciation--of Jahweh, Jesus, Vishnu, sex, and the acrid jokes he'd been cracking for half a century. A company of musical pallbearers added touches that hint at a consoling spirituality if you give them time and don't insist on actually being cheered up. But note that the most soothing softens a final statement credited solely to the dying man, which you could call a parting gift if it wasn't topped off by an instrumental track that reprises his most enigmatic farewell song: "I wish there was a treaty we could sign/It's over now, the water and the wine/We were broken then, but now we're borderline/I wish there was a treaty/I wish there was a treaty/Between your love and mine." To those literal last words one can only add: hmmm. A-

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