Albums to Hear Before You Die #005 – I’m Your Man – Leonard Cohen (1988)
Not many people would have thought in the world of 80s post punk post New Wave and post New Romanticism that one of the most successful and enduring albums would emerge from that yesteryear doyen of gloom, Leonard Cohen.
At the time I was not, to my regret, a Cohen fan. However one fateful evening during a dinner in 1988 Some friends of mine persuaded me that this would not be the Leonard Cohen of whom I had so far steered clear.
I was an instant convert. Since then I have embraced the entire marvellous Cohen catalogue but it is to this album I owe the conversion.
We nicknamed it ‘The Leonard Cohen Disco Album’ – a generic misnomer since the style owes far more to the then contemporary fashion of New Romantic electronica, or synthpop, mellowed with beautiful backing vocals, an incredible sax and a string section.
One of Cohen’s main strengths is his lyrics. Like Ron Mael, of Sparks, or John Lennon, Cohen’s words work equally well as lyrics or poetry.
Recently I posted a blog entry about our fear of music, and Cohen is a case in point. Many people are put off listening to anything by Leonard Cohen on the basis of a random cultural meme. I described him in my introductory paragraph as a doyen of gloom deliberately because there is a musical urban myth that Cohen performs only ‘slit your wrists’ music. Even a cursory examination of Cohen’s songs and lyrics would show this to be far from the truth. The songs are about love, identity, spirituality (Cohen has run the gamut of most religious philosophies and seems to have ended up as a resigned agnostic at the last count) and are laced for the most part with a sly humour, a heavy dose of irony and very often suffused with joy.
This is almost a perfect album. ‘Jazz Police’ has never been a track that has affected me. I was hoping that I would grow into it but after nearly twenty-five years I find that hardly likely.
‘I Can’t Forget’ is a decent track but pales in comparison to the remainder of the tracks which are all truly excellent and which have been covered by a surprising number of artists as diverse as Tom Jones, Marianne Faithfull, Elton John, Michael Buble, Don Henley and REM.
‘First We Take Manhattan’ takes us straight into the drum machine beat and Cohen’s hypnotic vocals intoning enigmatic lyrics. What does it mean? According to Cohen,’It means exactly what it says….’
‘Ain’t No Cure For Love’ is a bittersweet ode to love itself ‘All the rocketships are climbing through the sky, the holy books are open wide, the doctors working day and night, but they’ll never ever find that cure for love.’
In direct contrast ‘Everybody knows’ is a stark look at the permissive society, and by extension all society in the decade of AIDS. Clever, darkly humorous lyrics add a kind of chill against the otherwise fairly up-tempo music.
‘Everybody knows you’ve been discreet, but there were so many people you just had to meet, without your clothes… and everybody knows.’
‘I’m Your Man’ takes us back to the clever love songs, a sublime bit of seduction.
‘Take This Waltz’ unusually, is a poem (roughly translated by Cohen) by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was murdered by fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War. It’s a gorgeous, string-backed surreal hymn of love and beauty and dance.
The album rounds off with Cohen’s now anthemic ‘Tower of Song’, a masterpiece of irony and perhaps psychological insight, paying an incidental homage to Hank Williams along the way. There have been many covers of this song alone, but none compare with the original.
‘I was born like this’ sings Cohen, ‘I had no choice. I was born with the gift of a golden voice…’
Amen to that!
1.First We Take Manhattan
2.Ain’t No Cure for Love
4.I’m Your Man
5.Take This Waltz
7.I Can’t Forget
8.Tower of Song