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