28 April, 2005



sometimes, it's a choice between the razor and the guitar ~ sometimes, it's both at once

Long before Kurt Cobain made gloom into a money-spinner, before Nick Cave made a profession out of dark folk-rock rife with Christian imagery, before Marilyn Manson turned angst into a bad Hallowe'en costume, a lovesick Canadian songwriter named Leonard Cohen sat in a room with a guitar and turned pain into poetry. To describe his playing as accomplished would be overly kind. To describe his singing as melodic would be an outright lie. However his raw vocals, moodily understated guitar and extraordinary lyrics combine to leave the listener entranced and inspired.

His later songs employ extensive backing vocals and accompaniment, but his early work - of which 1971's Songs Of Love And Hate marks the third album - is known for its bare simplicity. While more recent albums find Cohen almost crooning in a relaxed, rumbling baritone, his first handful of works feature an old soul in a young voice: rasping and anguished, backed usually by a solitary acousitc guitar. This sound - often retrospectively described as "death folk" - paves the way for Cohen's sheer emotional intensity to resonate from the unpolished, unembelished original performance.

Indeed, the 8 tracks on the simply and aptly named Songs Of Love And Hate are certainly among Cohen's most heartfelt and devastating recordings. It's important to note too, of the title: this is not a collection of some songs about love, and some about hate. Rather, it is a collection where each song is imbued with the boiling-over of feeling in every direction at once. In Cohen's world - as in the emotional world of all of us, it could be argued - love and hate are not opposites, but merely different and equal expressions of passionate feeling. One cannot exist without the other; if there is an opposite, it is apathy - and no-one could ever accuse Leonard Cohen of being apathetic.

Opening with the embittered snarl of "Avalanche", the album pulls no punches. No topic is too dark or sacred for Cohen's poetry. Despair, elation, infidelity, and obsession are all on the menu. The exquisite "Famous Blue Raincoat" is perhaps Cohen's most elegantly crafted song, a restrained musical letter to an old friend who betrayed him by seducing his lover. However in several moments he breaks out of his usual subdued, melancholic sound, such as in the rowdy "Diamonds In The Mine" where he erupts in an almost comically manic torrent of musical nihilism. The album's imagery is overflowing with Cohen's usual melange of rusty-razor tangibility, holy-ghost religious fanaticism, and throbbing-flesh sensuality. The album closes with all three tightly bound, in Cohen's most elaborate anti-paean to one of his favourite recurring images: the lust-inspiring virgin warrior "Joan Of Arc".

Leonard Cohen's songs have famously been described as "music to slit your wrists by". This, however is simplistic and infantile. As any blues musician will tell you: the music is not the trauma, the music is the therapy. Cohen's records are depressed, but not depressing. By singing of despair and darkness, he places us in a perspective of hope and light. The emotion in the music - whether it be the most intensely passionate love, or the most bitterly burning fury - is a release, a blessing and a downright joy to listen to.

5 (out of 5)




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