Song of the Day, May 16: First We Take Manhattan by Leonard Cohen

CohenManhattanToday’s song kicked off a bold new chapter in an amazing career. Poet and novelist Leonard Cohen began setting his words to music in the late 60s, encouraged by folk legend Judy Collins. He recorded two spare acoustic folk albums filled with amazing songs, then began experimenting — with varied results. In 1988 he released I’m Your Man, reinvigorating his career with a masterpiece.

The opening track, First We Take Manhattan, is a perfect introduction. With urgent synth and a dark, surging beat under Cohen’s dark rumble of a vocal, it declares itself as something familiar but new. It’s a tale of espionage and intrigue, filled with smart observations and Cohen’s trademark cynicism. Powerful and haunting, it remains a standout in an impressive catalog.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

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Song of the Day, November 13: Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye by Leonard Cohen

CohenHeyToday’s song is an early classic from a master storyteller. Leonard Cohen was 33 when he released his first album, returning to music after years as a poet and novelist. Songs of Leonard Cohen is an amazing collection, featuring many songs that would become folk standards either in their original versions or as covers. Although Cohen is noted for lengthy songs, complex stories, and deep near-spoken vocals, this song is something quite different.

Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye features a fairly high vocal, even by Cohen’s early standards. It’s also quite brief, not even three minutes, and very direct. It stands out because of all these things, a straightforward declaration of disappointment told with remarkable clarity. Over an almost tidal roll of acoustic guitar, Cohen narrates the wonders of love that he expected to last, pausing at intervals to call out his departed lover in clear terms.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, July 1: Tower of Song by Leonard Cohen

CohenImYMToday’s song is the magical closing track to Leonard Cohen’s brilliant eighth album, 1988’s I’m Your Man. A smart reinvention that draws on all his strengths while breaking new ground, it’s a flawless set of eight compelling tracks. After telling tales of heartbreak, isolation, despotism, paranoia, and more, Cohen grows reflective as he rounds out the set.

Tower of Song puts the singer in a professional prison, trapped by his own career and accomplishments. It’s a nice conceit, crafted with Cohen’s trademark wit. Delivered in a melodic deadpan, it shows off the wry nuance of his unique voice. He ponders his place in the musical pantheon while considering the congenial isolation of the travelling life. Nothing sums it up quite like these lines:

I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song

Enjoy this brilliant song today.

Album of the Week, June 28: I’m Your Man by Leonard Cohen

CohenImYMLeonard 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.

Title I’m Your Man
Act Leonard Cohen
Label Columbia Release Date February 2, 1988
Producer Leonard Cohen, Roscoe Beck and Michel Robidoux
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  #48
Tracks
  1. First We Take Manhattan
  2. Ain’t No Cure For Love
  3. Everybody Knows
  4. I’m Your Man
  5. Take This Waltz
  6. Jazz Police
  7. I Can’t Forget
  8. 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.

Song of the Day, January 14: Leonard Cohen’s Bird on the Wire

CohenBirdToday’s song is Leonard Cohen’s personal touchstone, the magnificent Bird On the Wire. He began writing the song while living in Greece in the mid-60s, inspired by his girlfriend, Marianne, to compose as a way out of his depression. He refined it in California just before recording it and has noted that it is a permanent work in progress.

I always begin my concert with this song. It seems to return me to my duties. It was begun in Greece and finished in a motel in Hollywood around 1969 along with everything else. Some lines were changed in Oregon. I can’t seem to get it perfect.

Cohen included it on his 1969 album Songs From A Room and it is considered one of his signature songs. Kris Kristofferson has famously said he will have the opening lines included on his tombstone (and Cohen has noted that he will be hurt if it doesn’t happen).

Like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.

A song of rugged determination, it has been covered dozens of times over the years, by artists ranging from Kristofferson’s ex-wife, Rita Coolidge to k.d. lang, from Joe Cocker to Tony Carey.

FapCoBirdMy favorite interpretation was recorded by Fairport Convention. As they emerged from their California-inspired light folk phase and entered their creative peak in the late 60s, the band included a number of inspired covers in their live shows, including songs by Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. A version of Bird On the Wire was recorded on December 2, 1968 in BBC Studio 2 for the Stuart Henry Show. Bassist Ashley Hutchings included the track on a cassette of BBC covers that the band sold at shows, eventually released in 1987 as the great snapshot album Heyday. Sandy Denny and Ian Matthews work their vocal magic with the song, creating a stunning rendition.

Song of the Day, March 14: Suzanne by Fairport Convention

Today’s song is Suzanne by Fairport Convention. Highlighting their fondness for great songwriters, the band included a number of covers in their BBC performances in the late 60s. Perhaps the finest is this brilliant version of one of Leonard Cohen’s signature songs. Originally written as the poem Suzanne Takes You Down and set in Montreal with dancer Suzanne Verdal as its subject, the song has been covered dozens of times and has been ranked as one of the finest songs of the 60s. This version, with alternating lead vocals by Ian Matthews and Sandy Denny and stunning guitar work by Richard Thompson, it’s a perfect reading of the song.

There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind.

Enjoy this magical performance of a fine song today.

Song of the Day, November 10: If It Be Your Will by Antony

Today’s song is Leonard Cohen’s If It Be Your Will as performed by Antony. This is one of Cohen’s most powerful songs, drawing on his long-standing tradition of elliptical passion.

If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well

Cohen’s version is on his 1984 album Various Positions (also the home of his classic Hallelujah). Antony Hegarty participated in the astounding I’m Your Man tribute concert for Cohen, delivering a sublime interpretation of this amazing song. Enjoy Antony’s great live performance of this Cohen song today.

Song of the Day, September 21: Everybody Knows by Leonard Cohen

Today’s song is Everybody Knows by Leonard Cohen. Starting his career as a poet and novelist, Cohen moved into the folk music world in the late 60s. A brilliant writer, his songs have been covered by hundreds of artists. His own recording career has been somewhat sporadic. Starting with stripped down folk albums, he has moved on to more elaborate production on later albums. At the core, however, are his clear, wry observations and wonderful imagery. Everybody Knows is one of his most enduring songs, coming from his 1988 album I’m Your Man. It is Cohen and his most delightfully mordant. It opens with a bang

Everybody knows the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost

and gets bleaker from there. But, as Cohen observes in every chorus

That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Celebrate the enduring talent of this amazing singer and songwriter while wishing him a happy 77th birthday today.

Song of the Day, July 21: Hallelujah written by Leonard Cohen (John Cale performance)

Today’s song is Hallelujah, written by Leonard Cohen. Originally included on his 1984 album Various Positions, the song struck a chord with the musical community and has been covered dozens of times by a wide variety of artists. Cohen has stated that “many different hallelujahs exist” referring to the amazing diversity of interpretation the deceptively simple song has received. There are also a number of lyrical variations performed.

Ironically most of the famous versions use lyrics that differ noticeably from Cohen’s original recording. When John Cale decided to perform the song for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan, he asked Cohen for the lyrics and was promptly faxed 15 pages. He picked out what he considered the “cheeky” bits and recorded the version that is the basis for most later covers.

This is one of my very favorite songs, one I’ve loved since long before the glut of Hallelujahs over the past decade. I have wonderful versions in my collection by Cale, Cohen, Jeff Buckley, Alison Crowe, k.d. lang, Justin Timberlake, Rufus Wainwright, and Kathryn Williams. Buckleys’ is famously sublime and Wainwright’s is beautifully sneaky. My favorite, however is the stark, elegant reading by John Cale. Enjoy his masterful interpretation of this enduring song today.

Song of the Day, April 10: Tonight Will Be Fine by Teddy Thompson

Today’s song is Teddy Thompson’s brilliant cover of Leonard Cohen’s Tonight Will Be Fine. Recorded as part of the documentary/tribute/concert film I’m Your Man, this is the standout performance. Teddy’s stark, clear delivery takes the wonderful Cohen song to a whole new level. A great tunesmith in his own right, Thompson shows here that interpretation can be the sincerest form of homage. (Apparenty Cohen agrees, having called this one of the finest performances of one of his songs ever.) Listen here.

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