I was only 10 years old when “Suzanne” came to my attention on the radio. Even then, I instinctively knew that something – I didn’t know what, of course – was special about the singer who would become revered as one of the great lyricists in music. Leonard Cohen released his magnificent debut Columbia album, Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1967 and the rest is history.
Legacy revisits the first 3 Columbia albums of Leonard Cohen on the year of his 40th Anniversary as a recording artist. And they do so in epic fashion. All three albums, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), Songs from a Room (1969), and Songs of Love and Hate (1970) are housed in hardcover deluxe digipaks and are augmented by booklets filled with photos, lyrics (integral to the album), credits, and new liner notes from Cohen aficionado, Anthony DeCurtis. In addition to this necessary set of reissues, there are uncovered, previously unreleased, Cohen songs, some of them early versions of original album cuts, and all are outtakes and session tracks.
Cohen’s debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen, is nothing short of a masterpiece. It contains the unforgettable songs, “Suzanne,” “So Long, Marianne,” “Sisters of Mercy,” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” With his spare use of instrumentation, and his unique voice that matches his brilliant words with a cadence that give flesh to the spirit of his lyrics, Cohen creates a timeless work that, to this day, is mined, as well as other Cohen albums, as covers for artists.
Besides the already extraordinary songs, and of particular interest to fans, are two bonus outtake inclusions. Both songs were John Hammond (legendary Columbia A&R that signed Dylan, Cohen, Aretha Franklin, Seeger, Billie Holiday) produced. Both “Store Room” and “Blessed is the Memory” use simple organ and guitar, both sounding not too far removed from each other. Both are welcome additions and fully complement the album, even if a bit jazzy in contrast to the rest of the album.
Songs from a Room initially was scheduled to be produced by David Crosby (Crosby, Stills, & Nash), who actually produced a few tracks (included here as the bonus cuts) but was turned over to a staff producer to complete. The album begins with “Bird on a Wire,” a classic song of freedom and its required forgiveness, a price that freedom exacts because of painful detachments. The album is filled with a more musically confident Cohen as he weaves his way through the elegiac “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy,” the softly dark and metaphorical “The Butcher,” and the love challenge of “You Know Who I Am.”
The two included bonus tracks on Songs From a Room include previously unreleased session tracks from the short David Crosby recording sessions. The first is an early version of “Bird on the Wire” titled here as “Like a Bird” While familiar, the song is more a forced tune, less the resigned and warm tune that it becomes, but is still charmingly fascinating. The other bonus track is titled “Nothing to One,” an early version of “You Know Who I Am.” It is closer to the final tune in sound and vocals making this a ‘toss up’ preference.
On his third album, Songs of Love and Hate, Leonard Cohen becomes more the comfortable singer. He expands the songs by using a designed emotion in his voice. In short, he has learned to growl and bark, even bite. This is evident on “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” where he adds an element of rock singing to his voice, almost punkish, thus giving the song long, very sharp teeth. The same is displayed on “Diamonds in the Mine,” perhaps even more powerfully. And remember, this album pre-dates the anger of punk by nearly a decade. Leonard Cohen turned a corner with this album by realizing that he, in fact, did belonged in music and that he had a rapt audience. There are several sure styles on this album making Songs of Love and Hate, perhaps, the most self-assured Leonard Cohen album of the three.
The one included bonus track here is an earlier version of “Dress Rehearsal Rag.” The song that ended up on the album is a much more dramatic version, with lots of spit and scorn than the early version. The early cut is more spoken and less derisive, making only words the weapon. You’ll easily recognize the sharpness of the final version in contrast.
There is a spark of a sad emotion in every Cohen song. His unmatched ability to create spheres of songs that rotate around a central core of work is extraordinary. To listen to Leonard Cohen accurately, it requires one to fall into the music completely. Once inside, you’ll become one with each song as it, line by line and word by word, draws out the purity of the moment. None of this is unknown to fans of Leonard Cohen, whose benefit this set of Expanded reissues is for. However, as Leonard Cohen is exposed to new fans via the new covers (Anjani, Madeleine Peyroux, k.d. lang, and others) as well other celebratory functions that include film (I’m Your Man – Theatrical/DVD), a 50th Anniversary re-publication of Cohen first-volume poetry (Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) – ECCO/HarperCollins Books – May 29, 2007), and tribute (Philip Glass composition based on Cohen’s published Book of Longing (2006), a Toronto production scheduled for June 1-3, 2007, tour following), a wider net is hoped to be spread.