Sunday, May 2, 2010
Leonard Cohen never really fit the conventional of a singer-songwriter. Not a particularly gifted musician in the technical sense, nor blessed with an especially powerful voice.
Cohen took up music after finding there was little money in publishing his poetry and novels, heading to America to pursue a career as a folk singer.
His light, gentle baritone slowly deepened from the 80s onwards, most noticeably on 1988's I'm Your Man; his slow, methodical singing on the album more closely resembles spoken word than any of his work from the 60s. The musical backing changed with him. He abandoned acoustic guitars and gentle orchestration for synthesizers and keyboards.
'84's Various Positions was the first album Cohen recorded which integrated recognizably synthesized instruments, but I'm Your Man embraced the synth-pop sound wholly. Many other singer-songwriters who recorded their best work in the 60s floundered in the 80s; they struggled to adapt an aesthetic designed for acoustic backing to the then-futuristic sound of drum machines and synths. Where Dylan, Linda Rondstadt, et al. struggled, Cohen soared by wholly embracing the 80s sound. The tackiness of the programmed drums, lite-jazz guitar work and pseudo-symphonic keyboard swells all serves to lend Cohen's newly deepened voice even more gravitas.
"First We Take Manhattan" is the crown jewel of the I'm Your Man, and exemplifies the purpose of the album's production and tacky instrumentation. Narrating from the perspective of a terrorist, Cohen is a prophet of doom; he pronounces the end of the world over music taken from a Reagan-era infomercial. When Cohen intones, "I don't like your fashion business mister/I don't like the drugs that keep you thin", it sounds like a death threat.
Covers of Cohen's 80s output (Buckley's "Hallelujah" aside) miss the point of his musical backing during this era; the cheapness of his surroundings lent Cohen's murmur even more heft as he reports from the eye of the storm. When you strip these songs down to an acoustic guitar and a voice, you're not getting it. R.E.M.'s cover of "First..." actually comes pretty close, though - sadly can't find a link to it anywhere now.