We rarely think of Leonard Cohen as a pop star or rock idol - the very idea is absurd, almost sacreligious. Indeed, the very idea of thinking about him in terms of music at all seems wrongheaded - Cohen is a poet, who has condescended to use music as a means of reaching a wider audience than poets normally do. Most pop songs are expressions of a single emotion - Cohen tells stories, often in parable or ballad form, utilising a vocabulary so rigorously crafted, so austere and simple, it has the lapidary quality of the Bible (to which they often refer). Its apparent sincerity and plainness masks a remarkable playfulness, not just in the humour working underneath the most solemn of songs, but in the stories' switches in register, which at one moment seem to be about disintegrating relationships, the emptiness of loss, the elusiveness of other people, the intangibility of memory, or the transiecne of sex and desire; and at others seem to be a religious or political allegory about baptism, redemption, freedom or liberation. Statement and metaphor become indistinguishable in Cohen, which is why people spend lifetimes with his records, decoding their mysteries. The music is an unobtrusive background for this largely literary activity.
This was the caricatured conception I always had of Leonard Cohen, perhaps resentful of his always being limped with those other dullards of 60s earnestness, Dylan, Neil Young, The Doors, etc., in the posturing tastes of my teenage peers. But, over the years, it is not Cohen's words, but his haunting, repetitive, melodies that have stayed with me. Listening to these soul-etched songs for the first time in ages, I was surprised at how MUSICAL they were. Most follow the same formula - a repeated acoustic guitar is soon accompanied by strings or female backing vocals - but there are reverberant nuances throughout. The bobbing guitar of 'Suzanne' mimics the river the story is played out against, suggesting both stasis and movement, cradling the songs' heavy symbolic weight. Fairground music and strange tinkles brighten 'Sisters of Mercy'. 'So Long, Marianne' is perhaps the most musically inventive, full of fluid metamorphoses, from country hoe-down to military tattoo to Mediterranean mandolin. 'Bird On A Wire' and 'That's No Way To Say Goodbye' fray with Jew's harp; the latter has weirdly easy-listening, popping 'bap bam bam' backing vocals. The grating restlessness on the guitar in 'The Partisan' captures the song's sense of exile, of being on the run, far from home.
The method can sometimes become mannered, and neither 'Take This Longing' nor 'Who By Fire' count among Cohen's finest moments. 'Famous Blue Raincoat' is the masterpiece where it all comes together - the sparse atmosphere; the anti-dramatic narrative; the ambivalent language in the story-telling; the backing vocals that may or may not be the ghost of a lost love, or maybe echoes of the lost living now haunting the phantom narrator; the clash between a modern setting and a timeless vocabulary; and, especially the circular music, all its components spiralling into nothingness.