The Complete Columbia Albums Collection By Leonard Cohen
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
The collection arrived in a plain brown unmarked box. It sat inauspiciously on the corner of the front stoop for days before I noticed it. I unwrapped it, pried open the packing staple and pulled it out. A hard dense nugget, like a chunk of coal, like a gold ingot the optimistically inclined might describe it as. I tossed it back and forth, impressed by its weight, unassuming silence and suggestion. It was too much. A lifetime’s work. Seventeen albums collected like Hammurabi manuscripts, old scrolls, packed in tight. It was too intimate to break the seal, too much longing, too much pain, too many dark nights of the soul, too many success stories from the self-deprecation of the old lady’s man’s stance. I could do nothing but hide it. Poorly.
The box’s green and gold glinted, stared ominously at me from the left corner top of the piano for nearly a week as I slowly began to imagine what there was unwritten that I could pass off about the collected works. I’d thought a lot about Leonard Cohen in the last five years or so. More than any other time since my early twenties when a torn and waterstained copy of that first album, ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’ came with weekend guests to that first apartment on Homer street and was left behind.
At that time, his influence was unfathomable, unmeasurable. A man who in the chase of desire saw angels, in post-coital letdown felt breeze of bare ruined choirs, and who in the midst of his best come on, panties between his teeth would give a sideways glance to the mirror, fumbling for ‘hail Marys.’
Listening to Leonard Cohen was the reward for enduring a classical education that allowed for sharing a language, following pads of footprints into fearful places that he had the audacity to illuminate. Listening to Leonard Cohen took off a layer of skin; I could only imagine how relentlessly exhausting it must have been to have been born as him.
Leonard Cohen’s poems, novels and music gave a stoic, public face to my confused Canadian identity. The aboriginal, Jewish immigrant, evangelical seer, and dour Scots who crowded my geneology – old world and new world colliding – found perfect expression in his art. Sometimes listening to Cohen’s songs was like trying to stretch while hiding in a broom closet; other times it was like fingers releasing a string while the kite disappeared in the distance.
Still, I never let Cohen out of my sight. But, for years one could be forgiven for not giving his work too much thought or consideration. He was busy on a mountaintop, busy being robbed. When he emerged from the monastery, humbled and chastened by spiritual work and lightfingered caregivers, Cohen’s situation appeared as the perfect divergence in the script for the hard scrabbled redemption his mythology required. At moments, his predicament peeked through the parable and I felt for the ‘old man’ who had to get behind the mule again to sing, record and trawl through the cities of Babylon in search of much needed lucre and sustenance.
I didn’t turn back to the old albums. There was the newness of Dear Heather’s minimalist charm to enjoy. It was a blue penciled minor work with its subtext of great country songs that hinted at what was to come rather than the here and now. More than anything it was an addendum, a scrapbook that recreated the languor and directional viewpoints of ‘The Book of Longing.’
For Cohen fans, the real news was the world tour that at first tentatively sought to dispel Leonard’s belief that nobody would care to hear an old man and his songs. As it picked up majesty and momentum, the concerts served to knit together a cohesive sound, to write the book of Leonard with such a seamless flowing line that one could have thought all of the music was the product of one long day’s journey into night. It was truly his finest hour, but as I saw Leonard perform his second transcendent concert in Vancouver, I realized that I had allowed him to choose his musical moments for me – that he was acting as curator of his own exhibit. The Leonard Cohen I remembered was the Leonard Cohen that he gave me on stage in 2009 and 2010.
But, there is so much more to him, and as the box set continued to stare from the piano, I realized that it had been a long time, a very long time since I’d really listened to all of his albums. I owned them as records, cassettes and CDs; they’d been around so long, made their impressions long ago, and I had rarely been compelled to look back.
I opened the box and tilted out all seventeen CDs and began to play them in order beginning again with ‘The Songs of Leonard Cohen.’ Four days later, the last notes of ‘Closing Time’ off of ‘Songs from the Road’ finished as I washed the dishes from the night before.
There’s not much to say. The experience was powerful, profound and personal.
Our time on earth is precious. What we do with it is the measure of who we are. Listening to the titanic struggles, the slow bird wing breaking inside this music, it’s easy to feel that we do so little with our lives. How can we compare our own feeble days spent fumbling with the mighty chords that run through Cohen’s evocations of Eros and pain? At other times, I felt blessed that I had not been chosen to carry such a life’s work with me like Jacob Marley’s forged chains around my neck. Lucky that it was just music and that I could press ‘pause’ and go for a walk in the backyard garden.
There is not much to be gained at this point of Cohen’s history to go through the songs or the albums one by one. Taken together, they are dazzling consistent – a journey, a Pilgrim’s Progress, a soul traversing the wilderness who gently assumes a modicum of wisdom along the way. What strikes the listener is the incredible sinewy, coherence of Cohen’s voice and world view – there are no embarrassments, albums that don’t fit into the whole.
Listening back, I recalled how some of Leonard Cohen’s albums took me by the hand and were effortless from the first listening. ‘Various Positions’ is still the record that I most quickly settle in with. It was the album of my mid-twenties, the first Leonard Cohen lp I bought when it was new. Despite featuring ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ and ‘Hallelujah’, it is a sorely overlooked album. Songs such as ‘The Night Comes On’ and ‘The Law’ are amongst his very best recorded work and it’s a wonder he doesn’t perform them more often. Other albums, like ‘New Skin for Old Ceremony’ were more difficult and jarring to revisit, eliciting ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ when grappling with strange arrangements; similarly, the audacity of the cheap synths on ‘I’m Your Man’ has not smoothed with age. How did the man who long used a Jew’s harp as backbeat ever hook up with Phil Spector and his wall of sound? Yet, somehow, all of the sounds, missteps and cheesy arrangements form a perfectly sensible whole and resonate with dignity and purpose when considered as a whole.
The truly surprising outcome of the whole listening experience was a deepened appreciation for Cohen’s unerring sense of melody. As an artist known for his words rather than his musical virtuosity, this assertion about Cohen may come as a surprise, but from the very first album, hidden in its muted mix and minimalist scoring are hooks, choruses and melodic combinations that simply can’t be ignored. Producers from Bob Johnson and Phil Spector to the stalwart, John Lissauer have all had killer melodies to work with that reached their highest expression on the recent world tours. The amazing musicians and singers – true virtuosos all – that he surrounded himself with on his travels found so much in the blueprints suggested by the songs that they could tap into the wellspring of Cohen’s soul to create music of the first order.
Finally, this box set may be superfluous. You may have owned – as I have– all of these releases for many years and be reluctant to replace them. It is not for me to get you to consume more. The world’s got enough trouble dealing with all the things its people own already. But, ‘The Complete Columbia Albums Collection’ by Leonard Cohen is a finely crafted, beautiful set offered at a very modest price, and the experiences it offers – if the last week of my life is any indication – are more than priceless. Thank you Leonard!
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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