Friday, January 20, 2012

Cohen Review Over the Years ( Gazette Article)

Old Ideas was preceded by 11 other studio albums by Leonard Cohen. It’s a body of work so strong that no album can be dismissed altogether. Some of them struggle to survive questionable choices in production or arrangement, but each disc includes at least one song everyone should hear.

Here’s the Cohen catalogue to date, with our ratings and commentary. For each album, we have selected a canonical song, one that always elicits a gasp of joyful recognition, and a lesser-discussed classic.

All of the albums – except the new disc, Old Ideas – were recently issued in an essential, reasonably-priced box set titled Leonard Cohen: The Complete Studio Albums. The presentation is bare-bones: an unadorned cardboard sleeve, featuring original artwork, for each release, with all recording details squeezed into a single booklet covering the entire oeuvre. Spartan packaging aside, it should be in every home.

The many live Cohen albums are not included here, but the best are Field Commander Cohen – Tour of 1979 (2001) and Live In London (2009).

Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967, Five stars: The astonishing debut, which introduced all Cohen obsessions – love, faith, betrayal and despair among them – through inventively-arranged songs that became instant classics.

Canonical: Suzanne

Also indispensable: Sisters of Mercy

Songs From a Room, 1969, Three and a half stars: Nothing wrong with the songs, although the performance and production sound a bit clunky. And that Jew’s Harp on half the album? Really bad idea.

Canonical: Bird on the Wire

Also indispensable: Story of Isaac

Songs of Love and Hate, 1971, Four and a half stars:

Almost as stunning as the debut, with tastefully subdued string arrangements that bring warmth even to the sad songs.

Canonical: Famous Blue Raincoat

Also indispensable: Avalanche

New Skin For the Old Ceremony, 1974, Four stars: The arrangements are more full-bodied and what was the LP’s second side is a tour de force, but when Cohen tries yelling as a vocal approach, it’s hard not to wince.

Canonical: Take This Longing

Also indispensable: Who By Fire

Death of a Ladies’ Man, 1977, Two and a half stars: The ill-advised collaboration with Phil Spector, the king of sonic clutter, makes it the odd album out in the Cohen oeuvre, but it’s not quite as bad as conventional wisdom would have it.

Canonical: nothing

Indispensable: that would be generous, but Memories is a cool track

Recent Songs, 1979, Four stars : Some of the strongest melodies and most intriguing arrangements to date (Mariachi horns?) make this a spectacular return to form. Three cheers for Raffi Hakopian’s violin.

Canonical: Came So Far For Beauty

Also indispensable: The Gypsy’s Wife

Various Positions, 1984, Five Stars: The one Columbia initially refused to release (it finally did so in 1990 after it had been out on an indie label). The fact that this was a masterpiece, with robust melodies and a generosity of spirit, didn’t seem to matter to the suits. “Look, Leonard, we know you’re great,” Cohen later quoted label president Walter Yetnikoff as saying, “But we don’t know if you’re any good.”

Canonical: Hallelujah

Also indispensable: Dance Me to the End of Love

I’m Your Man, 1988, Four stars: Unfortunate ‘‘80s production values can’t capsize what is almost a greatest-hits album in itself. The deep, deep voice surfaces here.

Canonical: I’m Your Man

Also indispensable: Tower of Song

The Future, 1992, Three stars: Some brilliant songs, but Cohen’s fascination with synthesizers deepens, to the album’s detriment. For the first time, some tracks are actually throwaways.

Canonical: Closing Time

Also indispensable: Democracy

Ten New Songs, 2001, Three stars: Collaborator Sharon Robinson becomes Cohen’s right-hand woman and the mechanical keyboard sound threatens to sink some excellent material. Cohen’s voice is now a heavily-mic’ed whisper.

Canonical: In My Secret Life

Also indispensable: The Land of Plenty

Dear Heather, 2004, Two and a half stars: Uneven, at times even forgettable, this rambling meditation on aging found Cohen’s voice in even rougher shape, and the synths continued to dominate. But even lesser Cohen albums have their sweet spots.

Canonical: nothing

Indispensable: Nightingale

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