Leonard Cohen - Songs From A Room - Review
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critics' view

Following on from his classic debut album of 1967, Leonard exceeded expectations with his second set – from start to finish “Songs From A Room” was consistently on a higher plane, stripped back bare the way he wanted it, with confidence oozing from every note plucked, every word committed. Said the man himself: “It's very stark. A lot of my friends who were musical purists had castigated me for the lushness and over-production of my first record and I was determined to do a very simple album.”

Straight from the off, “Bird on the Wire” resonates as one of the greatest songs ever written - “Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free” – was that ever bettered for an opening gambit? Speaking of this song in a 1993 interview with Song Talk, Cohen explained:

“It was begun in Greece [he lived there for a number of years in the mid-60s] because there were no wires on the island where I was living to a certain moment. There were no telephone wires. There were no telephones. There was no electricity. So at a certain point they put in these telephone poles, and you wouldn't notice them now, but when they first went up, it was about all I did – stare out the window at these telephone wires and think how civilization had caught up with me and I wasn't going to be able to escape after all. I wasn't going to be able to live this 11th-century life that I thought I had found for myself. So that was the beginning. Then, of course, I noticed that birds came to the wires and that was how that song began. 'Like a drunk in a midnight choir,' that's also set on the island; where drinkers, me included, would come up the stairs. There was great tolerance among the people for that because it could be in the middle of the night. You'd see three guys with their arms around each other, stumbling up the stairs and singing these impeccable thirds. So that image came from the island: 'Like a drunk in a midnight choir.'”

Brilliance abounds all over, but “The Partisan” gets closest to the opener’s luminosity on side 1 – it’s the only song from the ten not to have been penned by Leonard. It’s based on “La Complainte du Partisan”, a song about the French Resistance in World War II. The song was written in 1943 in London by Anna Marly (music) and Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie (lyrics). Anna’s recorded version appeared on the LP “Les chants de la Résistance et de la Libération” (L'encyclopédie Sonore 320 E 847, 1963). Leonard’s adaption, with added English lyrics by Hy Zaret, was the first to be renamed “The Partisan”: “When they poured across the border, I was cautioned to surrender, this I could not do; I took my gun and vanished. I have changed my name so often, I've lost my wife and children, but I have many friends, and some of them are with me.” Stripped-back is certainly the way to let these flavours flood out; Leonard’s mesmerizing picking is an added joy. It’s another fast-picker which provides the album’s closer; the stunning “Tonight Will Be Fine”. It’s a positive way to finish the LP – the wrongs of a disappointing day can always be righted in the evening time.

Some folks lambast the Cohen for his overcast tone. That’s to do him a dis-service, I feel: “Oh sometimes I see her undressing for me, she's the soft naked lady love meant her to be, and she's moving her body so brave and so free. If I've got to remember that's a fine memory. And I know from her eyes, and I know from her smile that tonight will be fine, will be fine, will be fine, will be fine for a while.” That doesn’t sound too depressing to me ; – )

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