1969, Music

Songs From a Room (1969) by Leonard Cohen

Songs of Leonard Cohen is over-produced. Like so many singer-songwriter debuts from the late ’60s and early ’70s, somebody somewhere didn’t trust the songs and/or the singer and made the decision to dress up his songs. Cohen likely didn’t know any better himself, not being a musician. But after the record came out, people complained to him about the arrangements. So, the story goes, he decided to record his next album with far fewer instruments.

So this should be right up my alley. I like sparse recordings of good songs. I don’t really like ornate, unnecessary arrangements used to dress up good songs unless they really, really fit the songs. I should think this record is superior to the debut. But so far I don’t.

Even though this record contains arguably Cohen’s second most famous song, “Bird on the Wire,” I can’t help but think Songs from a Room is the Strange Days to Songs of Leonard Cohen‘s The Doors. What I mean is, these songs mostly sound like the leftovers from the first album. Some of them even sound like the songs on the first album. (Listen to “A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes” and try not to think of “So Long Marianne.”) This is the fourth of fifth Leonard Cohen album I’ve heard and I’m tempted to say this is perhaps the weakest set of songs of his I’ve heard. That doesn’t mean they’re bad – Cohen’s lyrics are better than 99% of English language pop music lyrics – but that this is not his strongest set. At least, that’s what I think the problem is.

But I’m not really sure it isn’t due to Cohen himself. Cohen was never  the greatest singer but, over the years, he learned to speak-sing in a way that we might view as musical. But at this early stage he hadn’t done that yet. But, on his debut, his massive limitation was hidden, for the most part, by ornate orchestrations and Kaleidoscope. Here, he is absolutely exposed. And, on a few of these songs, he’s borderline awful at times. (Not all the time mind you, but periodically.) Had this been the approach on the first record, I think it might have been more acceptable but, because it’s the second record, it sounds to me ears as if he’s almost regressed as a singer.

Now, this all sounds very, very critical, and I don’t mean it like that. This is still a strong set of songs featuring well above average, and sometimes truly great, lyrics. And the arrangements are much better suited to Cohen’s songs (if not his voice) and are much closer to my platonic ideal of how songs like these should be performed. I just think it’s a step backwards from the debut, either due to the quality of the songs, the quality of Cohen’s performance, or a bit of both.


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