Leonard Cohen was born in Quebec in 1934. He developed a passion for literature and began writing in his teens. While at McGill University, he honed his craft and published a collection of poems. Throughout the 50s and 60s he published more poetry and two novels to solid critical acclaim. He also wrote songs and began to focus his energies in that direction by 1967. He found a champion in Judy Collins, who recorded a stunning cover of his song Suzanne and encouraged him to play at the Newport Folk Festival.
By the time he was 40 — nearly twice the age of many of his contemporaries — he was an established fixture in folk music. His lyrical style was allusional and epic and his music was spare, providing a sympathetic backdrop for a voice often described as melodious monotone. His first three albums feature an astounding array of songs that have been covered dozens of times by a wide range of performers. He slowed down a bit in the 70s, then took a six-year break before returning with Various Positions in 1985. Having found his muse again, he spent a couple of years creating his next album, the high point of his long, inventive career.
||I’m Your Man
||February 2, 1988
||Leonard Cohen, Roscoe Beck and Michel Robidoux
- First We Take Manhattan
- Ain’t No Cure For Love
- Everybody Knows
- I’m Your Man
- Take This Waltz
- Jazz Police
- I Can’t Forget
- Tower of Song
By 1988, Cohen’s voice was deeper than ever, still a distinctive, compelling instrument. His lyrics were as inventive as ever and his stories were just as epic — and often cryptic — filled with losers and liars, dreamers and lovers. He produced the disc himself with some outside assistance, embracing a more complex soundscape that featured synths, keyboards, and driving beats. He frequently shared the vocals with two women — Jennifer Warnes, who had worked with him before, and Anjani — adding color and texture without taking away from his own singing. The result was Cohen reinvented, a startling, satisfying new approach to the musical skills he had honed for two decades.
With the first track, Cohen stakes out familiar territory with new energy. First We Take Manhattan is a tale of espionage, power, and deceit. With anthemic keyboards and a dark, surging beat, it welcomes the listener to Cohen’s world. It’s a standout in his whole catalog and a perfect opener. Ain’t No Cure For Love is an ironic look at heartbreak, with Cohen assuming the character of a lounge singer. All the while it’s clear that he’s suffered the stings that he describes with such panache. It features great harmonies from Anjani and Warnes, and he works in a fun aside — “Ah, tell ’em angels!” as they croon the chorus. It’s one of the most fun songs in a career noted for its seriousness.
Everybody Knows is a Cohen masterpiece. It’s so distinctly his own that it’s one of his rare songs that fails when covered. A litany of broken promises, surveillance, loss, and sorrow, it’s held together with a weary detachment. We’re all going to be miserable and we all know it, so let’s make the best of it. Rarely is despair so engaging.
On the title track, Cohen offers a pledge of love. He can’t promise all the things that the stories say love should be, but he can promise to do his best. It’s a charming song filled with grandiose promises offset with disarming honesty. It’s a nice note of optimism, holding out the hope that two people agreeing to share their lives might just make things work out.
Take This Waltz is adapted from the work of another poet, Federico Garcia Lorca. It’s a wonderful use of music as a symbol of life, with lovely images set to a stirring tune. Warnes turns in an especially lovely duet vocal, lending majesty to the proceedings. Jazz Police is a strange vignette, a noirish bit of paranoia. It’s a fun romp that’s well executed and finds Cohen in fine voice, and the cryptic nature of the tale works especially well. On I Can’t Forget, Cohen spins a yarn of escape featuring one of his trademark losers. It’s a dark song leavened by the tagline, “I can’t forget, but I don’t remember what.” It has just the right desperate energy.
The album closes with the brilliant Tower of Song. A bit of autobiography and another look at the power of music, it ponders the role of the bard and the unpredictable nature of a musical career. It’s a wonderful construction filled with some of Cohen’s best lyrics and a fitting meditation for the 54-year-old performer as he launches the third phase of his storied career. It wraps up this set of songs on just the right note, looking back from a vantage that can see what the future might hold.
FURTHER LISTENING: Leonard Cohen has released just over a dozen albums of original songs in nearly 50 years. His first two — Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs From A Room — are amazing collections of songs, many of which have become folk standards, like his signature Bird On A Wire. The next few discs are less consistent but all feature some wonderful songs. Various Positions was a solid return and set the stage nicely for I’m Your Man. Since 1988, Cohen has released new material sporadically, with 2001’s Ten New Songs being the standout. For a great overview of the first 35 years of his career, the 31-song set Essential Leonard Cohen is actually that. It’s a solid introduction and includes most of his best work up to 2002.
Cohen has also gained signficant recognition for the power of his lyrics and music, celebrated by scores of musicians who site him as an influence and who have recorded great versions of his songs. As a testament to his enduring power, Cohen’s music has inspired six tribute albums. Singer Jennifer Warnes recorded Famous Blue Raincoat just before joining in on I’m Your Man. It’s a moving collection, inspired in no small measure by her close work with Cohen. The 90s saw dueling multi-artist tributes. I’m Your Fan showed up in 1991, a fun collection of often inspired covers by alt-rock performers. 1995’s Tower of Song was a sadly leaden collection by more established performers, with a couple of solid — if predictable — inclusions. Judy Collins aptly crafted a collection of Cohen covers in 2004, Democracy, a nice reminder of the power of her voice and a tribute to their long connection. Mojo magazine brought together a collection of modern indie performers in 2012 for Songs of Leonard Cohen Covered, another interesting collection. The best of the bunch is the soundtrack to the film Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. A nice tribute to Cohen, it features live recordings from a series of tribute concerts headlined by the extended McGarrigle / Wainwright family with many friends — like Teddy Thompson, Nick Cave, Beth Orton, and Antony Hegarty — joining in. It’s a joyous celebration and a wonderful testament to the power of Cohen’s music.