Leonard Cohen’s “Songs of Leonard Cohen”

This week, I’ve been listening to Leonard Cohen’s debut album “Songs of Leonard Cohen” from 1967. My girlfriend introduced me to Leonard Cohen by giving me a copy of the Phil Spector produced album”Death of a Ladies’ Man.” I slowly grew a deep appreciation for the songs on that album.  The production was like something from a dream; The recordings smelled faintly of liquor and cigarettes.  “Death of a Ladies’ Man” provided a cool, yet haunting, melancholic atmosphere through lyrics, performance and production.

I’ve been looking forward to this week with “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” At first, I was a bit disappointed by the sound. The vocals were too intimately languid and the atmosphere was much different than the Phil Spector produced album. Known as a poet before starting his music career, Cohen writes amazing lyrics. I loved them from first listen and my appreciation for them developed over the week. The music also grew on me as well. The vocals aren’t quite to my taste, but I appreciate that they suit the songs. There’s quite a bit for a songwriting musician to learn form here, especially the lyrics.

“Sisters of Mercy” got my attention first.  The songs of this album are vocal and acoustic guitar based. Any other instrumentation is there to provide support or background. This song features a jangly mixture of instruments in the background that sound like a French street band. This band consists of accordion, glockenspiel, some light percussion. The atmosphere that they provide captured my heart before the lyrics. 

Those lyrics tell a simple story of a passing interaction with two young women whom Cohen had given a place to stay. After some conversation and then seeing them sleep, he was inspired to write “Sisters of Mercy.” According to this tale, he was the person that provided charity to them, not the other way around. However, it seems that they left brightened his evening and left a lasting impression. 

Having bestowed upon them the title of “sisters of mercy,” he continues with references to religious symbolism throughout the song. In the third of the four stanzas, he elevates their conversation to the point of an awakening or spiritual conversion. The confession he mentions in this verse probably refers to the previous verse where he tells of leaving his family and his own soul. He admits to feeling lonely as a sort of punishment for his actions. “When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned.” It’s not clear to me if he says this, or the Sisters do. Like Jesus touched the eyes of the blind, they have given him a new perspective on life and he honors them for it.

Well they lay down beside me, I made my confession to them.
They touched both my eyes and I touched the dew on their hem.
If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn
They will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.

The track “Suzanne” introduces the sound of the album well. Broken chords gently played on acoustic guitar start the track to be joined by Cohen’s reserved vocals. Even the chord progression is a gentle one: I-ii-I-iii-IV-I-ii-I-ii-I for the verses and iii-IV-I-ii-I for the chorus. The verse chord progression rises during the first half across the ii, iii, and IV, to return to ii in the second half. The steps back to the tonic chord keep the progression gently seated. The melody, too, rises and falls. 

There are three verses, each followed by a chorus. The verse follow a rhyme scheme of AABB for the first four lines and then the next two or three lines rhyme, but not following a consistent pattern. Most of the rhymes are slant. In the final verse, he rhymes “river” with “forever” and then “harbor” with “flowers” for the first two lines. The last three lines end with “morning” which somewhat ties together the rhyme of final two lines “forever” and “mirror.”

One could potentially class the titular Suzanne as a manic pixie dream girl. This woman that’s “half crazy (that’s why you want to be there)” takes the listener on a journey of discovery. She knows where the heroes are, even in the most unexpected places. This perspective on life is her gift. In the second of the three verses, where I believe the second person is shifted to Suzanne, the focus is on Jesus, whom Cohen describes as broken, forsaken. Even “he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.” 

Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river
You can hear the boats go by you can spend the night forever
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers
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

Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”

Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" album cover This week, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks” to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Each Bob Dylan album so far has been monstrously impressive from a songwriting perspective. His skill to employ metaphor within narrative songs that utilize rhyme is astounding. For me, this album is right up there with “Blonde on Blonde” and I can’t get enough of it now that I’ve spent a week with it.

Finger-picked blues guitar drives the track “Meet Me in the Morning.” At first, I didn’t care for this song due to its repetitive nature. A twelve bar blues progression (I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-V-I-I) provides foundation upon which Dylan sings lyrics that follow the twelve-bar blues blues format of one line repeated twice, then a line in response. Like much of the album, the lyrics deal with a struggling relationship.

The first verse opens with the title “Meet me in the morning, 56 and Wabasha. Honey, we could be in Kansas by the time the snow begins to thaw.” I’m not sure why they are meeting to travel, except perhaps as a change of scenery or escape. The next verse tells how some say it’s darkest before the dawn, but the singer is always dark. But, when the morning rooster crows in the third verse, the singer feels mistreated by his lover. He feels persecuted and trapped, and wonders if the love was a curse. “Look at the sun sinking like a ship. Ain’t that just like my heart, babe, When you kissed my lips?”

I loved this catchy song by the end of the week. I like the layers of multiple guitars.  In the right channel , a bright acoustic guitar plays rhythm-lead lines. A fuzzy slide guitar soaked in reverb provides some atmosphere in the background. Another acoustic guitar quietly strums the chords. And yet clean electric guitar joins later to pick some lead lines and also gets in conversation with the fuzz guitar during the outro.

Also, I find it impossible to not sing along to the mellow grooving bassline.

On “Shelter From the Storm,” Dylan sings tenderly of a love lost. The jangly acoustic guitar dances nervously between the bass and vocals. We hear the sound of the pick and/or guitar strap ticking and rattling against the guitar. These additional sounds of guitar-playing unintentionally provide the only percussion. This type of natural imperfections lends a sense of authenticity to the recording. The chord progression throughout is a basic I-V-IV-I, with the melody providing a sense of variation through the verses.

These are some tremendous lyrics. The song is about confusion, loss, frustrations and heartache, but he’s telling it through the sweetness and tenderness. That’s how the song manages to be so powerful.  Rather than talking so much about pain and loss, he talk about promises and what was lost. However, it’s the middle verse that puts everything in perspective.

Now there’s a wall between us, something there’s been lost
I took too much for granted, I got my signals crossed
Just to think that it all began on an uneventful morn
Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm

Of course, there’s layers of ambiguity here as other themes become part of the picture. Images of Christ come into play, which could embarrassingly make a martyr out of the speaker, but I prefer to avoid that interpretation.  It’s too mighty a structure of self-pity, and also would be too self-righteous in contrast to other statements in the song.

The brilliant “Tangled Up in Blue” opens the album and remained my favorite song the full week. I rather feel it’s too great of a song to be the first. The opening chords of A and Asus4 play in my head all day. The verses are in a I-VIIb-I-VIIb-I-VIIb-I twice, followed by V-vi-I-IV twice and ends with VIIb-IV-I for the refrain of “Tangled up in blue.”

The first half of each verse is sung in a restrained back-and-forth melody, with the pitch rising for the second half. The percussion and other instruments likewise pick up in energy. This is balanced by the lower-pitched chords of E and F#m. The the refrain anchors the verse back to the tonic on “blue.” It’s interesting the use of chords for this key. The chords are more likely those of a song in the key of G, while the melody is actually in key of A.

As with the whole album, the layering and interplay of instruments is fantastic. Multiple strummed and picked acoustic guitars provide a full atmosphere of sound. Still they are mixed in a way that manages to keep things feeling stripped down.

The lyrics are the most amazing part of the song. A week definitely provides too little time to fully appreciate all he has going on here. At the very basic level, I appreciate the narrative quality of the song. Songs that tell stories, especially about characters and their relationships, get my interest. I especially appreciate tales of that touched on and lost and over-arching tales that narrow in on details. This is especially made poignant by going back to a place while accentuating the distance.

So now I’m going back again,
I got to get to her somehow.
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now.
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenter’s wives.
Don’t know how it all got started,
I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives.
But me, I’m still on the road
Heading for another joint
We always did feel the same,
We just saw it from a different point of view,
Tangled up in blue.