The sensible, intuitive Canadian wordsmith behind the first pair of Leonard Cohen albums seemed a far cry from the almost unhinged force which helmed 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. Presented to the world as a lyrical craftsman, Cohen’s debut and sophomore efforts – 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen and 1969’s Songs from a Room – arrived as neatly arranged collections, displaying individual templates of literary facility. Songs of Love and Hate would be Cohen’s first brush with the notion of a concept album, and the record would facilitate the excruciating birth of the artist from what previously had been only the writer.
The conceptualization of Songs of Love and Hate came during a period when Leonard Cohen was beginning to feel the strain of pressure brought about by the success of his previous work. As a result of this, as well as other personal issues, a bitterness would begin to fester within the singer, one which would greatly inform the direction of his third album.
The record remains an outlier in Leonard Cohen’s discography, with Leonard Cohen himself, at times, having seemed to address the material with a wary dismissiveness. This, despite many having designated it a career highlight for the songwriter since its release. Leonard Cohen was particularly critical of the album in the years immediately following its release, going as far as to call it “overproduced” and a “failed experiment.”
But while symphonic elements are ever present throughout the record – compounding Leonard Cohen’s then-established vocal/acoustic guitar approach – they are applied with such nuance and intentionality that they perfectly enhance their subject matter in spite of their own potency. It is worth noting, however, that Leonard Cohen appeared to become more charitable to the album with the passage of time.
Leonard Cohen’s initial antipathy for the collection may very well have been a result of the conditions under which it was conceived. Leonard Cohen would reveal, decades later, that he was in a tremendously dejected state during the writing and recording of Songs of Love and Hate, noting,
“Absolutely everything was beginning to fall apart around me: my spirit, my intentions, my will. So I went into a deep and long depression.”
It was perhaps through this emotional turmoil that Leonard Cohen was able to channel an artistic energy – and indeed, an artistic identity – that had not been present on previous efforts. Thinly veiled lyrics of a deeply personal nature inundate the album, delivered by the voice not of the reasonable scholar, but of the unhinged harbinger of imminent doom
The singer’s demented delivery – on what could have otherwise been portrayed, musically at least – as a lively pop tune in “Diamonds in the Mine,” sounds as though it is undoubtedly emanating from the manic, Joker-esque grin of a man on the verge of a complete mental break.
This is not dissimilar to the approach taken for “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” a gut-wrenching, real-time documentation of one’s own downward spiral set to waltz time. It is also perhaps the most eloquently crafted depiction of a longing for the end of life, kneecapped by a lack of fortitude to see it through.
One has little trouble envisioning a haggard Leonard Cohen bumbling around his Chelsea Hotel dwelling as the discordant minor stabs of the melody behind “Dress Rehearsal Rag” seem to press him forward, closer to the stainless steel razor-blade he articulates with such emphasis in the lyric.
In the song, feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness color already painful memories of simpler times with a chestnut-haired girl who perhaps could have been the songwriter’s salvation. The impotent rage drives the blood to his veins, which swell up “like highways all along [his] wrists.” The blade never takes the ride, however. It’s only one of several practice runs for a day that ultimately would never come – “It’s just the dress rehearsal rag.”
Even in the more collected moments throughout the record, Leonard Cohen is unmistakably a man with a bone to pick. Album opener “Avalanche” which, with its furiously plucked arpeggio pattern, foreboding vocal delivery, and downright confrontational subject matter, set the tone authoritatively for what is to come.
The tune originated from a poem of Leonard Cohen’s, and makes use of vivid imagery, including frequent references to Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo. Like much of Leonard Cohen’s work, countless interpretations of the song’s meaning have been posited in the decades since its release. The narrative sees Leonard Cohen speaking from the perspective of one who is apparently seen to be at a disadvantage, and is looked down upon by those around him.
The song’s narrator is disgusted by the condescendence of those offering their aid under the guise of compassion, singing,
“The cripple here that you clothe and feed is neither starved nor cold/”
There’s an indignance to the hostility of the narrator which suggests that perhaps they possess knowledge shared by neither the listener nor the intended recipient, knowledge which stands to significantly shift the balance of the power dynamic at play. This interpretation is supported by passages such as,
“You who wish to conquer pain, you must learn what makes me kind/ The crumbs of love that you offer me, they’re the crumbs I’ve left behind/“
But as is consistent with Songs of Love and Hate as a conceptual work, Leonard Cohen’s vexation is ultimately directed inward. “Avalanche” eventually acknowledges its narrator’s own hand in his odious plight, as Cohen sings,
“I have begun to long for you, I who have no greed/ I have begun to ask for you, I who have no need/”
“Avalanche” is often regarded as a prime example of Leonard Cohen’s distinctive “choppy” guitar style, which was an integral element of his playing and songwriting throughout his storied career. Late in life – 2011, to be exact – Cohen regaled a room of onlookers with the tale of how he “got [his] song.”
In his late teens, he met a Spaniard who was playing a guitar in a public park. Leonard Cohen arranged to take lessons with the man, who showed him some standard flamenco techniques over the course of three visits. A fourth visit was not to be, however, as the man took his own life. Those few lessons formed the basis of Leonard Cohen’s playing style, and consequently, his astounding body of work over the following decades.
A key element to what makes Songs of Love and Hate such an effective collection is its succinct cohesiveness. From front to back, the album sounds like what it’s iconic cover art looks like. This, in spite of “Sing Another Song, Boys” clearly having been a live recording – cut live on August 30th, 1970 at the Isle of Wight Festival – while the accompanying tracks feature the perceptible dynamic nuance of studio recordings.
This incongruence notwithstanding, the album hits that sweet spot of harboring a consistent, discernable atmosphere, while exercising enough variation to justify an album’s worth of songs. Perhaps the purest distillation of the album’s spirit is found within standout tracks “Last Year’s Man,” “Love Calls You Your Name,” and “Famous Blue Raincoat,” which sound like they could each be sections of a comprehensive suite, despite the latter featuring on an altogether different side of the album.
“Famous Blue Raincoat” is an ambiguous tale – in the form of a letter – of a love triangle, which seems to baffle even its own creator. Speaking on the song decades later, Leonard Cohen confessed to his own uncertainty as to the true inspiration of the concept. Acknowledging the presence of an unwelcome third party in many of his own relationships – as well as his own time spent as an intrusive outside force in the relationships of others – even he is unsure as to whether the lyric was based on reality or was simply an elaboration on true experiences.
The haunting number is expressed almost entirely through minor chords. The strings of Leonard Cohen’s acoustic guitar are plucked so lightly they sound as though they are whispering, the mind behind the directive so despondent the fingers can hardly be bothered to heed its command. The lull of the verses is lifted by the transition into chorus, which lifts the song’s key from A minor to C major.
But the major chords that comprise initial sections of the chorus are chipped away by minor movements until the melody finds itself back where it began. This can be interpreted, harmonically, to be representative of the uncanny potency of pain that is momentarily alleviated through the prospect of hope, only to resume once more indefinitely. Leonard Cohen has acknowledged that the minor-to-major key change for the chorus had its origins in the Spanish music to which Leonard Cohen owes his own stylistic development.
Describing the lyrics as impressionistic, Leonard Cohen has expressed a certain satisfaction with “Famous Blue Raincoat.” He has also remarked a number of times, however, that the song felt unfinished, and that there was a missing element somewhere meant to tie the whole thing together. Still, the ambiguity of the song can be thought to add to the unnerving mystique of the work, contributing to the song’s overall effectiveness.
As with “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” Cohen is able to withdraw maximum effect from minimal harmonic movement in “Love Calls You By Your Name.” The verses dance between intervals with almost nothing to speak of in terms of degrees of separation. Leonard Cohen once again uses the old trick of moving to the major for the chorus, but also reels back to the root – which he has been avoiding – to bring the 2nd and 4th within range. Through this, the emotional potential of the progression is realized concurrently with the subject’s own powerlessness in the face of cosmic forces such as the titular love.
Unsurprisingly, Cohen’s lyrical mastery is a marvel to behold here. The writer nonchalantly tosses out idioms in which some of the greatest mysteries of humanity are succinctly enveloped as though they were merely contents from a bag of old potatoes.
Vast abstractions such as denial in the face of passive danger for the sake of maintaining dignity, and the willingness to suffer – and perhaps, ultimately perish – in the name of one’s pride before conceding to the necessity of recalculating one’s approach, are apathetically and meticulously clocked through concise gems like,
“Shouldering your loneliness like a gun that you will not learn to aim/“
But the most astonishing distillation of a spiritual response, which evades subjugation by mere aggregation of human language, can be found within the passages of the album’s second track, “Last Year’s Man.” Almost certainly the most poignant articulation and exploration of the phenomenon of writer’s block ever laid to tape, “Last Year’s Man” surveys boundless literary hills and valleys in its 6 minute runtime.
Subject matter ranges from explicitly autobiographical to biblical, and seems to reign in the entire universe by way of multilayered symbolism. The matrimonial love triangle of Leonard Cohen himself, Bethlehem, and Babylon – which foreshadows the motif of “Famous Blue Raincoat” – profoundly communicates man’s desire for fulfillment of the passions which sustain the soul, and the dichotomy of such a state of affairs in an unsympathetic material world.
Closer to the surface, the delineation can be seen as a metaphor for Cohen’s own professional struggles as a man concerned only with his craft, within an industry concerned only with dollars and cents. The perilous prospects we are willing to face down in the pursuit of a universal truth – and but a fleeting taste of exultation – speak to the spirit of man as an indelibly ambitious universal force. Even in the face of our own undoing, it is understood that the promise of the reward transcends the probability of the risk, as expressed in the lines,
“As we fell together, all our flesh was like a veil/ That I had to draw aside to/ See the serpent eat its tail/”
Cohen’s fascination with the tragic figure, Joan of Arc, spills into “Last Year’s Man,” despite the character occupying the entirety of the space allotted by the album’s closing track. The Maid of Orléans is but a secondary character within this narrative, however. The primary is Leonard Cohen as he exists within the metaphor: uncertain and contrite in his army fatigues, wondering what it truly is all for, solemnly avowing,
“And though I wear a uniform, I was not born to fight/“
The lyric of the refrain to which the song continues to return always brings the narrative back the reality of the present moment, reading,
“The skylight is like skin for a drum I’ll never mend/”
The natural light bleeding into Cohen’s dwelling illuminates the vacant lyrics sheet as referenced in the song’s first verse. The physical illumination of the idle tools of his work serve to underscore the very real consternation being undergone by a lost soul forced to compete with the ghost of his former self – a battle he is decisively losing.
The writer’s own capabilities as they can clearly be understood from an objective and rational standpoint are acknowledged. This understanding only serves to further exacerbate his frustration, however. Being incapable of accomplishing what one sets out to accomplish is upsetting in its own right, but acting as the very immovable obstacle in one’s own path to fulfillment while being wholly cognizant of that fact can erect a warzone of internal conflict, as referenced in the song’s final passages,
“But everything will happen if he only gives the word/ The lovers will rise up and the mountains touch the ground/ But the skylight is like skin for a drum I’ll never mend/ And the rain falls down, amen/ On the works of last year’s man/”
The album’s closing number, “Joan of Arc,” is presented as a dialogue between the Saint herself and the fire by which she would meet her untimely demise. Leonard Cohen has stated that the song is a comment on destiny and the ways people choose to make peace with their own fate. Death is coming for each of us, after all, and that is no easy notion with which to reckon.
This was the plight of Joan of Arc, though her own reckoning with the great beyond was unimaginable in scope by comparison to that of the common man, particularly in the current day. The human mind is highly adaptable, and short of a complete mental lapse, will generally determine a means by which to process most situations given adequate time.
Just as Joan of Arc was destined to marry the flames which would consume her, we all must make peace with the less than ideal situations in our own lives. Songs of Love and Hate tells of a man grappling with his own circumstances. As such, it is telling that the song chosen to close the album – simultaneously the most violent and most soothing on the record – is one of acceptance, and even understanding.
Ultimately, Leonard Cohen seems to have determined that he was unable to outmaneuver his own fate. Likewise, he could not bring himself to move past this mortal plane. Thus, it was decided that – even in the bleakest of circumstances – something is better than nothing, and that the search for something worthwhile in the midst of a complete absence of such a thing is as honorable a pursuit as any.
Leonard Cohen “Songs of Love and Hate” Album Review article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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