He’s paid his rent in the Tower of Song. As far as I’m concerned, Leonard Cohen should be grandfathered there for eternity.
I started listening to this Canadian bard late in life. While songwriters like Elvis Costello and Tom Waits (who I’ve loved since high school) were undoubtedly influenced by Cohen, I didn’t acquire a taste in his music until well into my late 20s. But better late than never. After all, Cohen himself didn’t receive his first record deal until he was the age I am now.
I started listening at the beginning, every album from his first through 2004’s Dear Heather, and all the live efforts in between. Poetry has always leapt out of Cohen’s mouth, but it was his vocal intonations that really drew me in. He’d be plaintive on “Bird on a Wire,” brooding on “Avalanche,” wistful on “Famous Blue Raincoat” and seemingly lovelorn on “True Love Leaves No Traces.” I marveled at how years could go by from one album to the next; but, with great art comes great effort. Cohen’s ability to make music on his terms left us in gleeful and never disappointing suspense time and time again.
For me, the pinnacle Leonard Cohen album is 1988’s I’m Your Man. Apart from its authoritative title, it may be the most self-assured work in Cohen’s canon. I consider it a desert island disc.
At age 53, Cohen hit upon a wonderful musical formula – 1980s synthesized production with complete lyrical integrity. Donned in suits, sunglasses and photographed in black and white, we were looking at and listening to a protagonist who was equal parts charming and deceptive. Cohen clearly loved this work and the images it conjured – his modern era live sets typically included six out of the album’s eight tracks.
I find I’m Your Man to be a quintessential New York album, even though the city is only alluded to in the album’s opening song (“First We Take Manhattan”). It encapsulates New York as devised and analyzed by poets – smoky, dirty and seedy, but also lush and beautiful. Listening to this album conjures buildings, characters and atmospheres. It’s not Gershwin’s New York that’s for sure, more like Raymond Chandler’s (just listen to “Jazz Police”).
The pulsating beat of “First We Take Manhattan” sucks you in from the get-go. It’s a darker extension of “Dance Me to the End of Love,” the opening track from Cohen’s prior album Various Positions. As the mechanized sound builds, and the chords envelop you, Cohen’s serpentine baritone chimes in:
“They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom for trying to change the system from within…”
Quite the difference from “When life gets too much, roll with it baby,” a la Steve Winwood from the same period.
“First We Take Manhattan” is an epic tale, involving escapades and sensuality (the lyric “I’d really like to live beside you, baby” is one of the sexiest things I’ve ever heard recorded). The mood changes as the saxophones pour through on “Ain’t No Cure For Love,” a phrase I’ve had recycling in my head nonstop since the recent election results. “Everybody Knows” showcases Cohen plunging deeper into his voice while backed by sweet European instruments. Lyrics from this tune are sure to carry great weight for somebody in the current age we live in: “Everybody knows the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost…”
But then the bleakness dissipates with the album’s title track, a fantastic mixture of coyness and bravado: “If you want a partner, take my hand, or if you want to strike me down in anger here I stand. I’m your man.”
Another important complement to Cohen’s lushness on the album are the warm vocals of Jennifer Warnes, a backup singer and writing partner of his since the 1970s. Having scored a number one hit with Righteous Brother Bill Medley six months before I’m Your Man’s release (“(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”), it’s nice to hear her stray from commercialism and duet with Cohen on the impassioned “Take This Waltz.”
Album closer, “Tower of Song,” slows the beat down to a crawl as Cohen ruminates on his age and life, making friends with the ghost of Hank Williams and unafraid of embracing the ironic – the lyric “I was born with the gift of a golden voice” would get a big audience rise at his concerts. Cohen would even recite the song in its entirety in his 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech. Known for working with the barest essentials, Cohen makes sure the rudiments of music are front and center here (“do da dum dum, de do da dum”).
And then, like smoke, the album closes and disappears into the air. There are no loud guitars, no screams, nothing saccharine – just a monumental work from an artist that never compromised to convention.
Over the last four years, Cohen released three albums: Old Ideas, Popular Problems and You Want It Darker, whereas it was previously common for him to go anywhere from two to nine years between efforts. Yet each release is its own classic. It doesn’t matter if it’s the sociological The Future or the Phil Spector-driven glorious monstrosity of Death of a Ladies’ Man.
And now, with Cohen’s death at age 82, I write the following:
Thank you for your words and your unflinching look at humanity in real time.
Thank you for your originality and your wryness.
Thank you for letting us connect with you even when, at times, it might have seemed too uncomfortable.
Thank you for producing work generations will keep talking about and finding inspiration in.
And lastly, thank you for being music’s true Field Commander.
Sincerely, I. Kantor
Reach out to Ira via email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @ira_kantor