(An introduction to the 17-set complete collection of Leonard Cohen albums released by Sony Records for online sales, 2011)
Some artists come from the Mississippi Delta, some from the South Side of Chicago. But a few, a very few, come from nowhere you can name and you’ll never get to the bottom of them. People will tell you that Leonard Cohen was a 33 year-old novelist out of Montreal and one of Canada’s leading poets when he brought out his first record, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” in 1968. But how does the romantic young seeker of those early gypsy ballads go with the ordained Zen monk of the early 21st century, and how does that wise elder writing about death and loss begin to fit with the smooth, Armani-clad field commander, declaring “I’m Your Man”? How does either jibe with the singer whose dark laments were buried under Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, or the ancient psalmist whose work has been covered by Bon Jovi and Willie Nelson? Who could have guessed that a 74 year-old grandfather, in the middle of a two-and-a-half year world tour, would see his 23 year-old song, “Hallelujah,” at number 1, number 2 and number 34 in the British Top 40 simultaneously?
Cohen sits outside every category, and throws together high culture and street slang, Buddha and the blues, so you never know what’s coming next. He’s less one man than an anthology of selves, waltzer and country singer and techno-maestro all knitted at the core in some mysterious recess. He’s lived in Nashville, in L.A. (and in the high dark mountains behind L.A. at the Mount Baldy Zen Center) as well as on the carless Greek island of Hydra, known for its donkeys and faraway monasteries. He’s inspired film-makers from Rainer Werner Fassbinder to Oliver Stone and acted as the head of Interpol on Miami Vice. He’s written a classic Old Testament book of psalms and sung on “Duets” with Elton John. Everything you know of him is wrong.
The sixteen albums collected in this set, though, give you a compendious, almost a comprehensive introduction to many, many of the dapper, searching, droll and ceremonial men called Leonard Cohen. You’ll meet the earnest troubadour with “one hand on a hexagram and one hand on a girl” and you’ll see the grave old philosopher who could be met on the backstreets of Jerusalem. You’ll hear the sound of a soul, alone, raising a cry to the heavens, and that of the silky man of the world accompanied by a chorus of female voices. You’ll think you’re listening to one of the great ironists of rock ‘n’ roll—“We met when we were almost young”—and then you’ll hear him calling out for surrender. Passing, as his fellow poet Thom Gunn once said of his own work, “the romantic impulse through a classical scrutiny,” he’ll give you what a fellow monk, Thomas Merton, liked to call the “smoke self.”
You’ll learn, of course, about sin and punishment and pride, and then you’ll lose yourself amidst the raucous, overturning chorus of “Closing Time.” You’ll recall, perhaps, that many of the more than 20 million records he has sold have been in Norway and Malaysia, and you’ll remember that one of his deepest albums, “Various Positions,” barely came out in the U.S. You’ll hear him deliver words like “naked” and “thighs” and “ache” as if he’s burning; but then he’s giving up everything in “If It Be Your Will” or singing of “Stalin and St. Paul.” These are songs from the deep, but it’s not always easy to see if he’s going deep into a woman, or into his own pain and unworthiness, or into the moment when “I moved in you and the holy dove was moving too.” As John Donne wrote, four centuries ago, “Love’s mysteries in souls do grow/But yet his body is his book.”
Leonard Cohen is probably the most literary spirit ever to look in on the pop charts, the one formal poet who will craft meticulous, clenched quatrains and a language of “thee”s and references to Cavafy and put them to melodies you might have heard in Krakow three hundred years ago. Many of his friends and contemporaries—Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, say—are clearly poets, yet both are first and foremost songwriters and singers who happen to have a wild way with words; Cohen is a man of words—“holy” and “lonely” and “broken”—fashioning verses as bottomless and riddled as those of Emily Dickinson (but set to bandurria and laud accompaniment that can hold 90,000 rapt at Glastonbury}.
Take away the music, though, and you feel bereft; these are songs, not poems. “Everyone says I know only three chords,” the singer said to me when I visited him once at his monastery. “I actually know five.” See the words on the page without the gravelly grumble, the arrangements that suggest a dark empty room in the dead of night, the raggedly simple tunes, and you’re missing half the point. The very imperfectness of the delivery is part of what gives the songs gravitas and humanness and history; it lets the light get in. Cohen’s melodies are so tuneful that some of his songs have received 200 or more cover versions; yet no one else singing “Suzanne” or “Bird on a Wire” or “Hallelujah” can give us the battered depth and weathered soulfulness that he does, and mix a song about King David and Bathsheba with invocations to a Zen master and a way of rhyming “do you” with “Hallelujah.”
Ever since the beginning, Cohen has been telling us not to believe in a fixed self and not to fall prey to expectation, especially of short cuts or easy answers. Even when young, he was giving us the growl of winter around the edge of longing, the crooked grin that rose above the pure-hearted hymn. Always he has taken us into the essential questions of life—death, sex, war, betrayal—without ever taking himself too seriously. So it’s a treat, in hearing his whole career tumble out on this set, to recall that he was writing, in his first novel, in 1963, “We all want to be Chinese mystics living in thatched huts, but getting laid frequently” forty years before he seemed to be living that part. In 2006 he gave Anjani Thomas a poem to sing that he’d published in 1961.
Listen to any or all of these sixteen albums, more than sixteen hundred times, and you’ll see that you’re constantly getting new things from them. The songs are built to last, even if they talk about impermanence. The verses are sturdy, impeccably crafted—Cohen spent a decade getting the stillness of a song like “Anthem” just right—and you’ll never find anything shoddy or casual. They’re aged, you could say, and given weight and power by the sound of the years in them, the ageless Biblical words, the perspective that will bring “the bloody cross on top of Calvary” and the “beach at Malibu” into the same frame.
The island of Hydra, another North American wanderer in Europe, Henry Miller, wrote in a notebook, is “the birthplace of the immaculate conception. An island built by a race of artists. Everything miraculously produced out of nothingness. Each house related to the other, as though by an unseen architect. Everything white as snow yet colorful. The whole town is like a dream creation: a dream built out of rock.” Hydra, Miller wrote, produces nothing but “heroes and emancipators.” Is it any wonder that, inheriting some money from his grandmother, the young Cohen paid $1500 for a house on the Greek island, and it was from there that his early songs from a room began to emerge?
A dream creation; and a dream built out of rock.
The Leonard Cohen Complete Collection can be bought only directly from the Popmarket store–http://www.popmarket.com/leonard-cohen-the-complete-columbia-albums-collection/details/25975999