"Songs from a Room" is, for me, the end of the early period of Leonard Cohen. This is his second album, released one year after Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1969. Despite Cohen's longing to be a country and western singer, he is adjusting to the fact that he will probably continue to be more of a folksy-blues singer by his listeners. Is it the lack of wailing guitars, fiddles and harmonicas? Certainly his self-image will persist (note the cowboy hat on the front cover), but scarcely by anyone's assessment but his own. I can't imagine it's because he is afraid of being without a genre label, but more because he yearns to identify himself with this group of singers. His later veneration of Hank Williams, among other things, only strengthen my theory.
His voice still strays into uncomfortable upper registers which still elicits the same sense of boyish loneliness. The lyric ability has aged, which for Cohen is more a sign that his skill in choosing poems to put to music has progressed, rather than strictly a comment on his songwriting ability, for this is certainly still part of his period of prolific poetry.
This was my first Leonard Cohen album, and it took more getting used to than some other albums. "Bird on the Wire" is generally regarded as a classic (if gauged only by the number of people who have covered the song), and I allow that it is likely to be the most popular song simply because of its subject matter. On the other hand, compared to the previous album, "Songs from a Room" offers vastly more political commentary: "The Story of Isaac", along with his cover of "The Partisan" and "The Old Revolution" give us a much clearer idea of where he stands in terms of poverty, war, justice: it is the same sort of honest appraisal he offers when he treats relationships and our culture as a whole, often exploring truths even the most daring might not share.
As far as "The Old Revolution" offers what I consider the most poignant turn of phrase on the album:
Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows
This song talks of kings and the inner-conflict of war and revolution, culminating in the fearless refrain (especially for any Holocaust-aware Jew as Cohen):
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture
You whom I cannot betray
The fact that after ten years I still can't put my finger on what is so moving about his words is testimony to its power. Likewise, "The Partisan" is a personal favorite of mine when it comes time to play my guitar, and "The Story of Isaac" is responsible for one of the proverbs in my arsenal. I cannot help but allude to these lines when apologizing for my own pride:
And mercy on our uniform
Man of peace or man of war
The peacock spreads his fan
"Seems So Long Ago, Nancy" is certainly the most haunting song on the album. Unlike many songwriters, he is willing to expose some of the most despicable truths about himself, especially when it comes to his shirking of political responsibility and his fluctuation between treating women like toys and treating them like goddesses.
Aside from these highlights, I don't find this album rates highly in comparison to its brothers and sisters. One thing to note, however, is that Cohen sharpens here one tool that is rare among songwriters: his phrasing can be so juvenile and embarrassing that it forces me into shades of my own embarrassment and finally to admit that all adults still think thoughts of children, but have learned to share them with no one. Consider this from "Tonight Will Be Fine":
Oh sometimes I see her undressing for me
She's the soft naked lady love meant her to be
Of course, these clumsy descriptions of love and sex have become almost a hallmark of Cohen's work. Just the phrase "soft naked lady" is enough. There is an honesty to this description that continues to make me consider the art of it time and time again. I'm never sure what his intent was, but the fact that I continue to have such deep and varied reactions to these phrases makes me wonder what makes it so powerful to be so child-like. It is more than just simplicity, more than just honesty, more than just purity. What is it?
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