"A Drunk in a Midnight Choir:" Leonard Cohen's "Songs From a Room" at 50
(This Review Written by Adam Venrick)
Many times in the careers of famous musicians, there comes an album that can be classified as “the shrimp between two whales.” Bob Dylan’s Another Side of Bob Dylan, which fell between The Times They Are A-Chainging and Bringing it All Back Home is an example. So is Joni Mitchell’s For the Roses, which fell between Blue and Court and Spark. And Leonard Cohen’s sophomore album Songs From a Room is another good example. But the thing about these shrimp is not that they’re bad (most of the time.) And I would argue, not that they’re small accomplishments. They just happen to fall between works that overshadow them (often for reasons other than quality.) Another Side of Bob Dylan, for instance, was a border album between Dylan’s protest-song period and his famed (and hotly contested) electric period. For the Roses came between Mitchell’s two best selling works and, like the former album, represents an artist in the middle of evolving their style (in this case, folk to folk-jazz fusion) that hasn’t quite fully arrived.
But this doesn’t seem to be the case for Songs From a Room.
Indeed, Leonard Cohen did nothing drastically different between his first and second album. He did nothing drastically different throughout much of his career. He was a brilliant songwriter, well belonging in the company of Mitchell, Dylan and Paul Simon (but more on that later) as the four best songwriters of their time. And while Cohen is constantly (and I would argue, wrongly) compared to Dylan, I would argue he’s much more similar to the other two. It might be pointless (though I try) to argue that Cohen is a superior musician to Dylan. But I believe it’s true. He’s more thoughtful, less boastful and more concentrated on making music than notoriety. His sound is often more minimal, less charged and less turbulent. Maybe the best comparison is to say that Dylan is like Miles Davis and Cohen is like Thelonious Monk. They played the same genre at the same time, with similar people in the same places. End of similarities. Dylan, like Davis, changed his musical style considerably through his career either to experiment or to keep his consumers satisfied. Cohen, like Monk, updated his basic approach to music making very little. His style evolved a little bit as he went on, and his instrumentation modernized, but his basic principles stayed the same. He waited for the public to catch up to him, not the other way around.
But all of that’s to say nothing about the record itself. Songs From a Room was Cohen’s second album, coming two years after Songs of Leonard Cohen and two years before Songs of Love and Hate. It’s easy to see why, of the three, it may be the least respected. It lacks the sonic ambition of the latter and may not be as good (may) as the former. It’s a sparse, spare album, often with just Cohen’s guitar as accompaniment. His famous background singers are absent this time around. It’s just him. Even the cover should give you a sense of how lonely the album can feel. It’s a black and white picture of Cohen (almost totally faded), small against a white background. Indeed, there’s something almost hibernal about the album. It’s cold and lonely and is almost the sonic version of an Ingmar Bergman movie. And Cohen delves into similar topics as Bergman.
Unlike his first album, which mainly consisted of love songs, this album deals more with themes of God, war (and the god of war.) It is perhaps his most probing album into these topics until the much fuller Various Positions in the eighties. (The record that contained “Hallelujah” and “If It Be Your Will.”) But unlike Various Positions, Songs From a Room offers far less solace. It is no great, sprawling celebration. It is a whisper into a dark and all-consuming void. And yet, it feels almost as oddly comforting as it does truly desolate and haunting, like lullabies sung by a ghost. It’s an album that’s best enjoyed on a Winter day, with snow falling deeply outside.
What’s striking about this album is that, aside from all that, it’s oddly one of Cohen’s most accessible. It’s themes, while personal, mirror society’s psyche (especially in 1969.) The second track “Story of Isaac” is an anti-war (specifically anti-Vietnam and the draft) song. While “The Partisan” (adapted from a French poem) tells the story of French soldiers in the holocaust. “A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes” addresses the futility of societies misplaced worship of war, and the album’s possible best track “The Old Revolution” has themes that are as relevant in 2019 as they were in 1969. Other great songs include “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy,” the story of a tragic young woman looking for love through sex (and ending in suicide) and “The Butcher” a grappling with life, God, addiction and death. It’s worth noting that while Cohen wrote ballads through his entire career, this album contains possibly his most balladic songs. They are about people, often in the first person, but often not. “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” is told both in the second and third person.
It’s also worth noting that, while I do think that this album is better than Songs of Love and Hate, I do think the the latter album contains Cohen’s most underrated (and possibly best) track “Avalanche.” While the former album contains one of Cohen’s most overrated and worst songs in “Bird on the Wire” (from which this article takes its name.)
So why does Songs From a Room get the short end of the stick. Aside from it’s opener, all of the songs are fantastic and it’s truly a good kick-start into themes Cohen wrote about throughout his long (and very poetic) career. Life, Death, God, Love, War and Being Remembered. These are primal themes told in a blunt (and bleak) way. Perhaps no other album in his catalogue is as beautiful in its bleakness as his last album, You Want it Darker, which dealt with the same themes in a similar way, at the opposite end of a career (and a life.) Cohen, who began his recording career in the mid sixties, was thirty-five when Songs of Leonard Cohen came out in 1967. At thirty-seven, well travelled and approaching middle-age, Cohen had a better handle on life than did Dylan, SImon, Mitchell or any of their contemporaries, (though Mitchell probably came the closest.) Moreover, Cohen does a kind of reverse of what Simon and Mitchell do. While they make ordinary topics poetic, Cohen makes poetic topics ordinary, and Songs From a Room is perhaps one of the best examples.
So it’s clear to me that the apathy directed towards this album stems from a very specific place. It is too spare in between two very rich albums that for whatever reason have become better known. Perhaps it’s because, as time has gone on, we’ve preferred richer albums. But with that said, this reviewer urges listeners to go out and see for themselves. I believe they will not be disappointed.
Final Score: 91%