Looking back at the record that made a generation’s greatest wordsmith...
'Songs Of Leonard Cohen'

Many people are hailed as great songwriters, as poets weaving beautiful words together with their own compositions. But in the pantheon of singer-songwriters, Leonard Cohen is an unmatchable presence, a shooting star untouchable to anyone else that dare put words to music. The likes of Bob Dylan, Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell are often held up as the era’s greatest songwriters, but for this writer Cohen exists on a pedestal towering far above the rest.

Tragically taken away from us last year, the Canadian wordsmith birthed one of his greatest albums, the rasping pop noir 'You Want It Darker' in the months before his death. Whilst this immortal document was rightly one of the most celebrated records of the year, it is now we celebrate the immortal debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen, which turns 50 at the end of the month.

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His 10 first studio songs, spanning two sides of vinyl, remains one of the poet’s greatest works. A collection that contains songs that remain his best loved, 'Songs Of Leonard Cohen' offers some of his most intimate and articulate meditations on relationships. A lot has been made of Cohen’s erotic despair, the way in which the wordsmith sounds sexy even when he is in a state of the utmost resignation. From the tender melancholia of 'Suzanne’s escalating verses to the dreamlike intensity of his lyrical anguish on 'Teachers', the way in which he rattles off his quatrains sounds intimate the whole duration.

Perhaps when people think of the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, the first thing that springs to mind is the poetic way in which he documents his plentiful romances. On his first record, the tales which he weaves together intertwine realism and metaphor, his vivid descriptions and frank lyrics able to conjure up the most graphic and stirring images whilst also detailing more profound meditations.

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Most poignantly this comes on Side 2 Track 1, 'So Long, Marianne'. His muse for this was Marianne Ihlen, a Norwegian woman he met on the Greek island of Hydra. Cohen and Marianne were together for seven of the years that preceded the release of 'Songs Of Leonard Cohen', with this track being the most evocative and beautiful of breakup songs.

“I used to think I was some kind of gypsy boy, before I let you take me home”, Cohen sings, of how he was a quote-unquote free spirit before he met her. Leonard’s love of her is powerful, eternally heartfelt, and whilst the song is melodically beautiful, lyrics like “your letters all say you’re beside me now, so why do I feel so alone?” feel riddled with heartbreak.

Marianne Ihlen went on to remarry (“I see you’ve gone and changed your name again”), but remained a dear friend of Cohen until her death, early last year. An aged Cohen sent penned a letter that said “Well Marianne it's come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine”.

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Another woman who is preserved for all eternity on this album is Suzanne Verdal, who Cohen enjoyed the most enchanting of platonic friendships with around the time of writing. However, whilst Verdal’s hospitality and friendship is so vividly depicted in the first refrains - “and she gives you tea and oranges that come all the way from China” - the way in which Cohen meanders through the verses of this track yearn for something all the more spiritual.

Constantly juxtaposing and comparing the idea of blind love in romance and faith as he sings, “and you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind”, making this eternally one of his best known songs.

But although women often crop up as objects of desire in Cohen’s lyrics, he is never leery, never misogynistic; indeed, you’ll struggle to find contemporaries that paint such human portraits of their subjects. 'Songs Of Leonard Cohen' may not have the weight of some of the succeeding albums, 'Songs Of Love And Hate' and 'New Skin For Old Ceremony' being particularly heavy entries, but it is on this record where Cohen positions himself most as a close friend bearing all.

Since his first impression upon the world of recorded music, the things Cohen achieved and produced were nothing short of brilliant. From the similarly tender 'Songs From A Room', to the militarised synth pop of 'I’m Your Man', right up to the curtain call of 'You Want It Darker', Cohen boasts arguably the greatest bodies of work of any so-called singer-songwriter; a great, a genius, and a master that perfected his trade oh so early on in his career.

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Words: Cal Cashin

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