Leonard Cohen was so unhappy with the way this album turned out that he paid to release himself from the obligation of promoting it. It's generally regarded as a hideously misbegotten experiment-that-went-astray. He doesn't do any of the songs on tour, perhaps not wishing to remind himself of what was apparently a traumatic experience.
But the fans who insist this is an unfairly-maligned masterpiece are not being contrary. I've loved this album from first hearing, and I've heard it hundreds of times. Perhaps Cohen's sensibility and the Wall of Sound are hopelessly mismatched in style, and yes, he was right to return to more simple production values in later albums. His lyrics ought not to be so buried. But the incongruity is weirdly compelling. The phrase "Kafka in Disneyland" popped into my brain as I first listened to it....a fanciful impression, maybe, but not wholly inappropriate.
The eight songs, all excellent, were cowritten by Cohen and producer Phil Spector. The liner notes do not indicate a definite delineation between their input; Did Spector help out with the lyrics? Are the melodies partially Cohen-composed? This has never been clear to me, and I'd really be curious to know for sure. They were written at Spector's L.A. mansion during a period when the Canadian poet, whom one would suppose would be used to the cold, was forced to wear an overcoat indoors, due to Spector's megafrigid air conditioning. The songs depict the dark side of the relationship between men and women, and if you must have mooning and spooning in your romantic ballads, look elsewhere. In "Paper-Thin Hotel", the singer listens to his lover make love to another man in the adjacent hotel room, and the knowledge that his suspicions of her infidelity are confirmed fills his heart with relief. Who but Cohen could write this? The song "Iodine" deals, brutally frankly, with the subject of impotence. The Spectorian production works especially effectively here, deploying nyahh-nyahh-horn riffs. "Fingerprints" is a marvelous country and western rave-up; why it isn't a standard by now I can't imagine. "Don't Go Home With Your (expletive deleted)" was the closing song performed by the entire company during an Australian Cohen-tribute concert which was filmed for the "I'm Your Man" Cohen documentary of a few years ago. It was not included in the movie, the CD, or the DVD, I'm sorry to say. "Memories" is splendid doo-wop-flavored song, in which the singer meets a beautiful blonde at a dance, tries immediately to sweet-talk her into bed, and is sweetly rebuffed.
Sometimes the artist is not the most astute judge of his own work. The Beatles could never listen to the White Album without remembering the increasing level of inter-band acrimony that accompanied its creation. The average listener has no such impediment. And Leonard Cohen's friction with Phil Spector, who seized control of the album, will perhaps always color his opinion of the end product. And by now, with Spector in prison for shooting dead a woman in the same mansion where he and Cohen wrote the songs, this memory is not likely to warm up over time. Spector once put his arm around Cohen's shoulder, and aimed a pistol at his cheek, and purred "I love you, Leonard." Cohen gently pushed the gun aside and said "I hope you love me, Phil!". Considering ensuing events, no one in the world could blame Cohen for preferring to suppress any memory of their partnership. I wish he'd perform at least a couple of these songs on stage, but I guess that is unlikely to happen.
But the album remains in print, and its eccentric glories have stood the test of time. Is this an ideal entry-level Leonard Cohen album? Probably not, if only because it is such a departure from what he usually does. But do not be scared off by its reputation. Listen to cuts online, that might be sufficient to hook you.