Sunday, 13 November 2011

Leonard Cohen - Songs From A Room - Album Review [13th November 2011]

A Room Along The Way.
Although perhaps I have not received the full effects of Stendhal Syndrome, the black and white photograph used for the back cover-art of this record is a picture that has me overwhelmed with various emotions, and when ripped from its light, I am gratified by a marvellous energy to contribute to the world...something at least! This eroded capture of his room in Hydra, with his girlfriend Marianne shown smiling at a type-writer in their apartment in Hydra is eternally etched in my mind. His own desires for such things that this image shows comes through partially in some lyrics in the closing song of Songs From A Room.

"I choose the rooms that I live in with care,
the windows are small and the walls almost bare,
there's only one bed and there's only one prayer;
I listen all night for your step on the stair."

Is she typing the lyrics he is speaking, I could conclude using the logic of Tonight Will Be Fine, from the bed? Or standing, maybe at a window. And she is not just writing, but clunking at the keys to unify the words in print. Is she expressing her own work? What has made smile so? Is she taken by surprise? What kind of surprise is this? What would Cohen have been saying as he took the picture? Surely, he took it? Is this true joy? I will continue to wonder...

Lyrically, this collection opens itself more to parable and third-person storytelling than before. Cohen's focus remains in the struggle of the soul and spirit but in this record he interprets this through character and tales. The language is often violent - images of stillborn babies, guns beside heads, needles and arms. Grace is far still. Through his interpretation of a French song, in The Partisan (an adaptation of a song called 'La Complainte de Partisan' by Emmanuel D'Astier de la Vigerie during World War 2) he is showing his battle through grander symbolism, and connecting his commentary to a larger society - a heritage of song-writing.

There is less sonic layering on this record, and further orchestration to the voice and nylon guitar are treated more traditionally - strings and organs playing long legato lines. The Jews Harp remains a notably alternative instrument to the sound and a high-lighted member of Cohen's sound. Notably ambiguous in one of his more recent songs On That Day, I wonder what Cohen extracts from this instrument and what he thinks as he includes it on a song. For me, it's sonically satisfying with a wide breadth of tone and a subtlely changing spring percussion. The Spanish stylings of guitar playing remain, ticking along in The Partisan, as one example, but on this record there are number of songs using more popular rhythms in folk-music of the time. The Butcher sees Cohen's first album song using a traditional blues progression. Although I find this limiting to the landscape he can paint in his songs, and makes for perhaps my least enjoyable track on this album, the marriage of his content with this sound seems natural and blues offers a culture rich to support Cohen's alternative struggles.

I adore that the 'owl' whistling is reprised to conclude this record, as it did fading in One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong, from the debut. Where as it sat troubled against a maniacal Cohen melody in that case, here it is contentment in the moment - an idea never boldly expressed on the first record. This polarisation of a technique, along with a revisited portrait of himself for the cover, etc... suggest his intent at finding and analysing what is timeless and what is not. What is connected to all, and what is not.

Overall, I find this record seems more controlled than the first and therefore less arresting. However, although Songs From A Room does not promise hope, much of it promises to work for it, a certain hope in itself, and a dream that the personalities of the first record found far from sight. Will we get closer in the next?

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