From a general point of view, Cohen isn’t making any big steps forward here, although nobody probably expected him to. However, a deeper peek reveals some curious differences.
Normally, those singer-songwriters that didn’t arrive on the stage with a pre-conditioned musical agenda tended to move from simpler to more complex arrangements, from songs that were all lyrics and almost no music to songs that paid more respect to current musical trends (not always successfully, though). With Cohen’s first three albums, the process was reversed. If you thought the debut was sparse and “economical”, to put it mildly, then Songs From A Room will look like the pinnacle of minimalism (and it would still be topped later on).
Among other things, this probably has to do with the change of producer: Bob Johnston takes away much of the orchestration and most of the singing ladies – the only time he employs female backup is to sing the French parts of ‘The Partisan’.
I can’t say I’m overtly pleased with the decision. It might have taken away any earlier whiffs of cheese, and it certainly forever cut short the possibility of Cohen going in a Bee Gees-like direction (not that there ever was a serious chance – he’d have to learn to sing for that, at least!). But it also cleared the music of all these neat little “touches” that I’ve been rambling about in the previous review, along the way.
There’s an interesting “psychedelic” electric guitar tone on ‘A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes’, maybe a couple very very buried organ phrases on a couple other tracks… mostly, that’s all there is. The album does run more smoothly as a result, but the number of “sub-moods” and “mini-atmospheres” has decreased, making the record seriously lag in many spots.
For some reason, though, the Jew’s harp has not only been retained, but actually transformed into the second most prominent instrument on the album, right behind the guitar. This decision I refuse to understand. The instrument is great when used sparingly, preferably on songs that have “menace” branded all over their bodies, but what is it doing on ‘Bird On A Wire’, for instance? Imitating the “wire”? Well, then again I suppose it’s better to have guitar and Jew’s harp rather than just plain guitar, after all.
In terms of substance, I’d say that the lyrics tend to get even more complicated and provocative than last time around, with very few love songs this time and far more social commentary (much of it of a decidedly anti-war character), as well as pure poetic visionarism, subject to as many interpretations as there are wrinkles on Keith Richards’ face.
Another difference is that on average, the melodies are shining through a wee wee bit more clearly. I certainly don’t want to say that the songs on here are actual “songs” as opposed to the ones on the debut album (that would be way too far-going), but gee, if Cohen even tries to bend notes on such numbers as ‘Bird On The Wire’, ‘The Old Revolution’, and ‘A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes’, and does it with moderate success, it definitely means that something is on the move – or, at least, that he obviously has no intention to retire back to the spoken-poetry world for good.
And honestly, ‘Bird On The Wire’ wouldn’t have been half as effective if it weren’t for the marvelous transition between the lazy, “careless” verse and the pleading, majestic middle-eight, here perfectly attenuated by one of the few, and one of the best, orchestral outbursts. In terms of recognizability, this is Leonard’s claim to fame number two after ‘Suzanne’, even if it’s far more enigmatic lyrically. But you know how sometimes it takes just one line to cut to the heart, even if the rest of the words may be garbage, and Cohen’s ‘I have tried, in my way, to be free’ is one of these lines.
Besides, it’s hard to really underestimate its influence; just how much was this style of “confessional” singer-songwriting from the first person developed in 1969? Neil Young immediately comes to mind, but when it comes to choosing between the two in this respect, Cohen’s still my bet. No wonder so many people have covered this song, chief among them Joe Cocker, whose version, released only months after the original, probably played a crucial role in popularizing it.
Not much on the album is like ‘Bird On The Wire’, though. After this introductory anthem is over, it is replaced by the usual bleakness, one morose number after another, only really letting it a little loose towards the end; particularly startling is the final number, almost defiantly gleefully called ‘Tonight Will Be Fine’, carried by an almost “boppy” guitar line and carrying more optimism and positive energy than fifty copies of Songs From A Room (with the final track taken out) put together. A striking parallelism to Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, by the way, isn’t it? There’s a big chance Cohen actually took some lessons from Dylan’s big comeback – which might also explain the stripped-down character of Room.
So then in between the Big Freedom-Loving Anthem and the Humble Optimistic Finale, you get songs that are glum, sullen, somber, surly, overcast, satournine, and farouche (this last word I have fished out of the thesaurus and dedicate this here usage of it to Cohen’s French ancestors). Of these, ‘Story Of Isaac’ is the easiest to decipher, and even that took some time; but apparently, it carries an anti-war message, with an analogy drawn between the sacrifice of Isaac and the sacrifice of all the young men in Vietnam – or, rather, the sacrilegiousness of such an analogy.
I certainly won’t be spending much time on the philological analysis of the rest of these tunes, though, since it wouldn’t be as much true philological analysis as it would be a frustratingly futile search of the one right interpretation – but it does seem to me that the general tendency is “bitter social commentary”. Songs like ‘A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes’, ‘The Old Revolution’ and especially the mysterious ‘The Butcher’ all have connotations of war/peace and order/confusion in society.
Actually, the lyrics of ‘The Butcher’, with its deep allegory of the complex interaction between God and man (the ‘butcher’ is the Lord, right?) might be among Cohen’s very best – grammatically and compositionally simple, yet brilliant and highly philosophical in their simplicity. They are all pretty nifty musical numbers, too, and prove that Cohen did have a sense of melody – call it ‘poetic melody’, if you wish, but these songs certainly would have been far ‘less’ in stature as poems in a book.
The overall “anti-war” message is further reinforced by the album’s only cover tune, ‘The Partisan’, sung partly in English and partly in French, which directly deals with said matter. On the other hand, with Cohen you never really know what kinds of things he uses as metaphors for what other kinds of things. In this here context, I’m not sure that when he sings ‘…I’m the only one… but I must go on: the frontiers are my prison’, we’re supposed to take this literally. He can use his micro-world and talk of war or confusion in terms of that, or he can take war and confusion and talk of his micro-world in terms of that. Like a band from Tottenham once sung, “any way you want it, that’s the way it will be”. (They weren’t singing about Leonard Cohen, of course, but thirty years on, who can prove?…).
In between the gloom and the glum are meshed only like maybe a couple or so of the “trustier” love standards – ‘Lady Midnight’, ‘Seems So Long Ago Nancy’; in contrast with the more elaborate love messages on the debut album, these seem a bit underwritten to me, but these are really minor complaints and I wouldn’t really know how to back ’em up (unexplainable personal impression – the worst enemy of the objective reviewer). In any case, they do not constitute the meat of this album.
Commercially, the album was relatively short lived; the “young and fresh” feeling is no longer there, and from then on, it was rather obvious that Cohen was consciously limiting himself to a restricted cult following because the novelty factor had worn off and his music would from now on appeal only to hardcore audiences who were finding it easy to identify with the man and his artistic pretentions. So, in retrospect, I have a hard time determining which of the two first albums I prefer; the ratings are very approximate for both.