Four In The Morning, The End Of December: Songs Of Love And Hate Turns 50

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Leonard Cohen – Songs Of Love And Hate

Released March 19th, 1971 on Columbia Records

Produced by Bob Johnston

Peaked at #145 US, #4 UK

Leonard Cohen started off his career wanting to be a writer. He was quite good at it, if you’re into the idea of a James Joyce from Montreal. If you’re not, his work might leave you a little cold; this was certainly the case with the critics and the buying public at the time. The upper crust of the CBC thought he was among the greatest voices of his generation; the stolidly middlebrow found him pretentious and the buying public largely didn’t find him at all. So in the mid-1960s he switched to writing songs instead and as a musician he was quite a writer.

You know damn well what I mean. They called him the Bard of Montreal and he wrote some of the greatest, darkest folk songs of his generation but from a purely vocal standpoint he sounded like the middle-ground between Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. A more generous interpretation of this might be that he’s a Bob Dylan who fucks. Honestly: imagine Bob Dylan getting down to business, and then imagine Leonard Cohen. Which one was easier to picture? If you said Dylan, you’re a goddamn liar. It probably helps that many of Leonard Cohen’s songs are, in fact, extended metaphors for Bohemian sex, or at the very least for the women he was having periodic affairs of Bohemian sex with.

Songs Of Love And Hate was his third album. His first had led off with “Suzanne”, a certified Sixties folk classic that has been covered by everyone and their mother and, were it not for 1984’s “Hallelujah”, would have been the song most associated with his work. His second chased that success rather well and although it contains my personal favourite Cohen one-two (“Song of Isaac” and “A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes”) it was most well-known for “Bird On A Wire.” Songs Of Love And Hate took a darker turn than the collections that came before it; it’s emotionally intense enough that the BBC opined, on a re-release from 2007, that it was among the “scariest” albums of the last 40 years. There’s certainly enough poisonous contempt to go around, especially on “Avalanche” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag”; the former also shows off Cohen’s particular style of classical guitar (his ‘chop’, as he called it) and the latter which had worked well as a Judy Collins song in 1966 but is presented here in a much more vicious fashion. “Joan of Arc” examines the titular character as she watches the flames that would consume her grow higher. “Last Year’s Man” draws out the theme embodied in the title of the album to it’s peak: “Some women wait for Jesus, and some women wait for Cain / So I hang upon my altar / And I hoist my axe again.” The most well-known song on the album, “Famous Blue Raincoat” (later covered by both Jennifer Warnes and Tori Amos), is a letter to a man who has been having an affair with the singer’s wife. It’s a dour sort of album and it marked him for many as being a dour sort of guy; the album flopped commercially in the U.S. but was his best-selling effort yet everywhere else, which sort of shows you the mindset that America was in on the eve of energy-fueled economic collapse. If you needed one album to sum up why Leonard Cohen’s music lasted all these years, it would be Songs From A Room. But if you can’t find that for some reason, Songs Of Love And Hate works just as well.

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