Essential New Music: Leonard Cohen’s “The Songs Of Leonard Cohen,” “Songs From A Room” And “Songs Of Love And Hate”

Every spook-rock kid worth his superstitious salt should unearth the first three albums from Leonard Cohen, the veritable grandfather of goth. It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since this Canadian poet/novelist began setting his Baudelairean rhymes to music with The Songs Of Leonard Cohen. It’s even more difficult to fathom the bass-dramatic depths to which his once-angelic voice would sink in later years, almost as if he were crooning from the musty catacombs. But the tentative, almost boyish softness of Cohen’s first folksinging forays only underscores his grim lyrics.

Decadence is part of the secret allure of Cohen, whose 1967 debut is easily the most enduring effort of the triumvirate. When he murmurs odes to “Suzanne” and “Winter Lady,” then counters his “So Long, Marianne” with the rejoinder “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” you get the impression that this smooth-talking guy has loved and left more exotic women than Casanova. Dig deeper, and the religious issues with which he has eternally wrestled begin to surface. Delve deeper still, and an urban, almost-beatnik edginess appears, as on “Stories Of The Street”: “I lean from my window sill in this old hotel I chose/One hand on my suicide, one hand on the rose.”

Cohen’s schematics are always startling; some songs follow a verse/chorus pattern, a la the classic “Bird On A Wire” (from 1969’s Room), but many just tumble by in a Thurber-ish stream of consciousness. Cohen makes it sound school-room simple, although he would later admit to struggling for a full year to perfect just one track. As he wends his way through these three albums, you can feel his skies clouding over, his outlook dimming, that lilting voice sinking into its eventual 1,000-cigarette quagmire, dragging the listener right down into the hallowed haze along with him. Bonus Material: Room adds a bass-heavy version of “Bird” and a reworked “You Know Who I Am” titled “Nothing To One”; Love And Hate features an early take of “Dress Rehearsal Rag”; and Leonard Cohen boasts the most intriguing outtakes (the loping “Store Room” and an organ-buttressed “Blessed Is The Memory”). []

—Tom Lanham