on March 28, 2004
The name Leonard Cohen first came to my attention way back in the day when Suzanne was released. It was a fairly popular and much-covered song, but it never occurred to me to actually buy the album. I was into much musically heavier things at the time and so my awareness of Cohen gradually receded into distant memory.
Nowadays, my musical interests are much wider and my pockets deeper, so I took a chance on Cohen's CD Ten New Songs when it was released several years ago. It took a while to get into, but I liked some of the songs immediately. My rule with music is that if I like a CD I've purchased by an unfamiliar artist, I buy something else by that artist also in order to give myself a broader enjoyment and understanding of their work. And so it went with Cohen. I picked up several more CDs and liked them enough to feel confident that I would be pleased with The Essential Leonard Cohen.
I have read all the reviews posted here, both positive and negative, and observe that its a given with any compilation that one will always feel that some songs were included that shouldn't have been and some obvious winners omitted. My candidate for ejection is Alexandra Leaving. I would have much preferred to see Boogie Street included or possibly Joan of Arc in its stead.
I think the CD is nicely divided into two periods because as several reviewers have noted, Cohen seems to have two voices. A lot of songs on the first CD one might classify as neo-folk, for lack of a better term. On this, I like Suzanne, The Partisan, Hallelujah, and I'm Your Man best.
On the second CD, the music is more in the direction of soul tinged rock with the occasional nod to country. And Cohen's deepening voice on the second CD imbues the music with more mystery and even occasional menace. I prefer the second disc with its apocalyptic renderings of First We Take Manhattan and The Future. Cohen's blood-chilling delivery on the latter combined with its scathing lyrics should give everyone a lot to think about. Closing Time wouldn't be out of place in any country dancehall and could probably be an alt-country radio hit. A Thousand Kisses Deep is evocative of the work of Michael Franks during his Objects of Desire period. But next to The Future, you might find the live recording of the dreamy and romantic Dance Me To The End of Love to be the surprise best cut. It is really tremendous. Juxtaposed with the former, it shows Cohen to be a man of huge talent who can literately express the gamut of human emotion through song.
This CD is not really for those who have all of Leonard Cohen's recordings already, but it is a suitable primer for anyone who wants an overview of this underrated musician's work.
on January 4, 2004
This is a must for any Leonard Cohen complete-ist's collection! I have every CD he's ever put out and yet I find myself frequently choosing this set in order to conveniently listen to favorites from a variety of Leonard's previous CDs. A fabulous collection from an amazing artist!
on April 5, 2003
LC, I'm your fan. Have been since I first heard Suzanne going on four decades ago. I used to sing it walking down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley; it was a phenomenal song then and it still is. This 31 song double CD covers Cohen's career from Suzanne taking your hand and leading to the river to Alexandra leaving with her lord. There is nothing that should not be on this collection, unlike many so-called Essential collections when there is almost always one or more "what the heck is THAT song doing here" moment. My only complaint is that it could easily have had 7 or 8 more cuts; Songs from a Room is badly underrepresented -- where is the unbelievably sad Seems So Long Ago, Nancy and the Hours-like Tonight Will Be Fine, with its lyric that captured Cohen then and does now as well, "I choose the rooms I live in with care/the windows are small and the walls almost bare?" And while I'm mighty happy to have Cohen's version of Famous Blue Raincoat, why not his definitive Joan of Arc? Oh, well, enough carping. Those who have most or all of Cohen's work may not need this -- although popped into the CD player it is a magnificant overview of how consistently strong his work has been for decades, none of the Dylan peaks and valleys. But for those who have only a couple of the albums or are looking to get introduced, this CD is definitive and, oh, yes, essential.
on May 3, 2003
Hopefully this won't be the last attempt at the "essential" Leonard Cohen, but this will serve as a superb interim introduction. I have been a big Leonard Cohen fan for years, ever since hearing "Suzanne" on the radio and then hearing a bevy of his songs in the superb and profoundly underrated Robert Altman film McCABE AND MRS. MILLER, which uses several of his songs on the soundtrack (back when songs were included to enhance the movie rather than provide an excuse for a soundtrack album). I have striven over the years to introduce Cohen to as many of my friends as possible, and early on played him to my daughter. Happily most (including my daughter) have become fans as well.
For some friends, I would make compilation tapes, and here is where one becomes aware of the problem with Cohen. Apart, perhaps, for his first album, Cohen is not at all well served by albums. He is far more of a singles artist, and some of his best individual songs can be found on otherwise miserable albums. A compilation can, in addition, mask how many really bad songs Cohen has recorded over the years. Luckily, at his best, he is very, very good. An anthology, therefore, is by far the best way to present Cohen's work, in comparison to other performers like The Clash or Van Morrison, who are better discovered in their original albums. It is even true of artists sometimes compared to Cohen, like Nick Cave.
So, how does this anthology rate? Actually, pretty good. In the compilations I have made either for myself or for friends, this contains nearly every song that I have found most essential. The only significant omission that I can find is "Joan of Arc," which I dearly wish had been included. I would have liked to have seen the live version of that song, featuring Jennifer Warnes singing the part of the "Joan" lines with Leonard singing the "Fire" ones. But any Cohen fan will find a song or two that they would like to have seen included in lieu of one of the ones that made the final cut. What is striking is how few of my own got left off.
Nonetheless, we really need a good, deluxe box set of Leonard Cohen's work, with detailed information about the musicians, which would be especially interesting on much of the earlier work. A disc of outtakes and rarities would be great, if for no other reason than to confirm my suspicion that Cohen has already placed his best work in the public eye. My gut feeling is that Cohen is a careful crafter of a few good songs, instead of a prolific writer of a spate like Bob Dylan. But I would at least like to see what there is in the way of alternate takes and unreleased songs.
Anyone wanting to learn about Leonard Cohen could hardly do better than this album. In fact, only the hardest of diehard fans will want to go very far beyond this disc. Anyone discovering that they really loved this music would be best served next by digging up a copy of Jennifer Warnes's (who has often appeared as a back up singer on Cohen albums) extraordinary album of Leonard Cohen covers, FAMOUS BLUE RAINCOAT. But I can't imagine many music fans not being stunned by this collection. Cohen isn't a prolific writer, but he has produced a small but spectacular collection of songs that need to be in the music library of any serious music fan.
This 3.0 edition with its third disc is a magnificent retrospective. The first two discs draw heavily on Cohen's legendary earlier work like Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs from a Room and New Skin for the Old Ceremony (Disc One, Tracks 1 to 11), and on later albums like Various Positions, I'm Your Man, The Future and Ten New Songs. The live albums are not represented at all, a great pity in the case of Live Songs of which Passing Through and Please Don't Pass Me By are particularly rare & unknown.
No doubt it deserves five stars - particularly since the artist himself made this selection - but I do miss some favorites, like the graceful The Window from Recent Songs (1979), Heart With No Companion from Various Positions (1985), which in my opinion would have been a better choice than Hallelujah (compare John Cale's great cover of this song on the I'm Your Fan tribute album) and Take This Waltz from I'm Your Man (1988).
I completely agree with the choice of tracks from The Future and Ten New Songs, especially the magnificent Alexandra Leaving, now joined by The Rivers Dark on the 3rd disc. Famous Blue Raincoat is joined by Love Calls You By Your Name to represent Songs of Love and Hate (1971). This album's masterpieces like Joan Of Arc and Diamonds In The Mine, amongst my favorites, have been omitted.
The Third Disc
Besides the aforementioned Love Calls You By Your Name and By The Rivers Dark inspired by Psalm 137 about singing by the rivers of Babylon (markedly less optimistic than the Boney M megahit!), it contains one further track each from Songs From A Room, New Skin for the Old Ceremony, Death of a Ladies' Man, Recent Songs, Ten New Songs & Dear Heather.
Gravitas at its gravest, Death of a Ladies' Man has a majestic arrangement in which waves of multi-layered doom-laden vocals unfold in crests and in troughs where a single female voice momentarily caress Cohen's. The instrumental sound is similarly constructed, so when waning a single instrument or hypnotic instrumental pattern comes fleetingly to the fore. With its overall drone-like ambience this song is as oppressive as Lou Reed's The Bells on the Street Hassle album.
This is a great compilation of Cohen's poetic and melodic genius, infused as it is with a unique spiritual quality. One can trace the maturing of his vocals; it became distinctly weightier and wearier from the 1992 album The Future. The trend has continued down to Dear Heather, and it makes the contrast between his voice and the female vocals even more sublime.
on November 13, 2002
I have every album Leonard Cohen ever recorded, and think that he is a brilliant but somewhat uneven composer. This collection should have contained his absolute best material, to introduce non-fans to the full range ofg his talent. Yet, there are several negligible songs included here, while some of his best known and most beloved are omitted. Where are Joan of Arc and So Long Marianne, or the trenchant Field Commander Cohen, the brilliant Dress Rehearsal Rag and the mesmerising Iodine?
Still, you have to start someplace I guess. If I were you, I'd start at the beginning and work my way through, but if you have no Leonard Cohen in your collecyion, this will do, I guess.
on May 3, 2004
The beauty of Leonard Cohen is he has always followed his own eccentric path and I see no duality between Cohen, the young romantic rake who ages into the embittered sensualist. It was always clear that Field Commander L. Cohen was going to dance us to the end of love, regardless of the consequences. Wheter it's the young revolutionary partisan, or the world weary cynic railing against the excesses of "democracy", Cohen has never been satisfied with the political or moral status quo. His career is based on dissatisfaction with the things as they are. For Cohen, redemption is impossible without wallowing in the mire. I can't imagine living the last 35 years of my life without the music of L. Cohen. It is the autobiography of a man unafraid to be both master and slave to desire. There is no contradiction between Cohen the folk singer and Cohen the post-modern electronic poet, just as it's difficult to draw distinctions between Dylan the folk singer and Dylan the rock and roll star. Two sides of the same man that coexist as complimentary halves of the same man.
Cohen may well be the most poetic songwriter of his generation. Well before he ever released "Songs of Leonard Cohen", he was a published poet and a literary icon in Canada. His more recent appeal among younger Bohemians for his existential honesty, differs from first generation hippies who celebrated Cohen as the embodiment of Eros and free love. His minmalist musical approach is a stark counterpoint to his poetic text which is lush with imagery, double meanings and ambivalent wordplay. "Sisters of Mercy" can be read as either a celebration of the good works of, either nuns or prostitutes depending on your viewpoint. "Hallelujah" makes a holy sacrament of uninhibited sexuality. Cohen always challenged the notion of duality in his themes by equating the sacred with the profane. His life's mission his been afflict discomfort on those who see the world in mutally exlusive terms of moral postivism.
Cohen was the reckless romantic who spent several years in a Bhuddist monastary and now he has returned as an aging Siddartha to challenge our conventional wisdom about life, love and morality. "The Essential Leonard Cohen" is the journey of a seeker of the truth beginning with a potrait of an artist as a young man, and ending with jaded musings of a sage and sinner who discovers the more he learns about life, the less he really knows. This is Cohen the zen-master who has nothing left to prove. We are wiser people for Cohen's long jouney into the heart of darkness and if you want the unadulterated truth about love and life, Leonard Cohen will be the first to step forward and fearlessly proclaim, "I'm your man."
on June 2, 2003
Judging by the other reviews, I'm a younger Cohen fan at 31. I was introduced to his music through the movies "Pump up the Volume", "Natural Born Killers", and the recent "Secretary". Like many, the thing that draws me to Cohen more than his words, is his deep voice. Much to my suprise, that voice doesn't kick in until track 13 on disc one. Everything pre-"Hallelujah" sounds like a different person. Don't get me wrong. Still good stuff, but it sounds like he hadn't hit puberty yet on those first 12 songs. Anyway, great stuff before, and especially after that point. "I'm your man", "Everybody Knows", "Tower of Song", and most of disc two is incredible. My personal favorite is "Waiting for the miracle" from the album "The Future". It's hauntingly good. He also has an early "hits" disc, and a later (deep voice) collection too, if you wanted to go that route. Whichever you choose, listen to Leonard Cohen.
on January 3, 2003
My only regret as I listened to "The Essential Leonard Cohen" over and over is that I didn't really discover this magnificent artist until 35 years after his recording career started. I knew the name, remembered vaguely the soundtrack from "McCabe and Mrs. Miller", and enjoyed the Austin Lounge Lizards parody song "Leonard Cohen's Day Job" (I now understand many more of the jokes), but it wasn't until I came by some "mad money" in September of this year and bought the 1975 "Best Of" that my eyes and ears opened to this unbelievably talented songwriter and vastly underrated singer. His lyrics are continually challenging and humorous at the same time. His vocals and arrangements have become richer and more complex over time, which in no way denigrates the simple beauty of such early classics as "Suzanne" and "Bird on the Wire". I soaked up "Best Of" for 3 months and then asked my wife for "more Leonard Cohen" for Christmas. She came through with the newly-released "Essential", which moves from the car to my computer as I go through my days. My favorites among the songs that aren't on "Best Of" are the uproarious "Everybody Knows", "Tower of Song" and "Closing Time". "I'm Your Man" relates pretty well to anyone whose "friends are all gone" and who "aches in the places where he used to play." Upon hearing "Hallelujah", I started searching my memory for where I'd heard the song--finally it dawned on me--"Shrek". And "Democracy" is an amazing look at the "USA" by one of our very perceptive neighbors to the north. The line about what goes on in the kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat cracks me up every time. "Ain't No Cure For Love" is great too; it's all great stuff! I strongly recommend that anyone with an ear for singer/songwriters who doesn't already know Cohen to pick up "Essential" with your next mouse click or trip to the CD store.
This grand retrospective draws heavily on Cohen's legendary earlier work (Disc One, Tracks 1 to 11), and then again on his later albums like Various Positions, I'm Your Man, The Future and Ten New Songs. Of course it deserves five stars - especially since the artist himself made this selection - but I do miss some of my favorites, like the graceful The Window from Recent Songs (1979), Heart With No Companion from Various Positions (1985), which in my opinion would have been a better choice than Hallelujah (listen to John Cale's great cover of this song on the I'm Your Fan tribute album) and Take This Waltz from I'm Your Man (1988). I completely agree with his choice of tracks from The Future and Ten New Songs, especially the magnificent Alexandra Leaving. It is perhaps understandable that he ignored Death Of A Ladies Man in its entirety, but this much maligned album has its gems such as True Loves Leaves No Traces and the lovely, light country number Fingerprints. If Cohen doesn't like the production, why doesn't he re-record some of these great songs? Another mystery is the skimpy contribution of Songs Of Love And Hate (1971). That album's masterpieces like Joan Of Arc and Diamonds In The Mine count amongst my favorites in his oeuvre. Oh well, there's no accounting for taste and it is the artist's prerogative to make his own selection. So enjoy his poetic and melodic genius, infused as it is with a unique spiritual quality, and his weary voice of resignation more often than not complemented by those famous female vocals just like the gilded frame of a dark painting.