Leonard Cohen: The Complete Albums Collection

Written by November 15th, 2011 at 3:51 pm

Leonard Cohen
The Complete Albums Collection
Columbia/Legacy
Rating: ★★★★½

Leonard Cohen is one of the most unlikely and most beloved musicians of all time. Following a world tour from 2008-2010 that marked a return to the stage after 15 years away and served as a much-deserved victory lap comes The Complete Albums Collection, a 16-CD set of all of Cohen’s studio and live albums that should solidify his reputation as one of the greatest songwriters of all time – one of the few who can stand alongside giants like Bob Dylan and Neil Young.

The thing that jumps out most after listening to this collection is Cohen’s incredible consistency. He simply has never made a bad album. Yes, Cohen only has 11 studio albums, compared with 34 for Dylan. Still, it’s remarkable that over a four decade career, there’s not a Self-Portrait in the bunch.

By the time Cohen released his first album in 1967, he was already well into his 30s with several acclaimed novels and books of poetry under his belt. Perhaps because of that Cohen didn’t experience any of the learning curve that Dylan and Young went through. He emerged into the music world fully formed.

His debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, is a masterpiece that contains many of his most enduring songs (“Suzanne”, “Sisters of Mercy”) sung over tasteful, yet spare arrangements that keep the focus on Cohen’s voice and lyrics – exactly where it belongs. His next two albums, Songs from a Room and Songs of Love and Hate, followed the same formula with similarly strong results.

It was on 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony that Cohen started to expand his sound a bit, pushing his vocal range further and adding more elements of both R&B and country to his music. His most experimental – and most controversial – album, Death of a Ladies Man, followed in 1977. Produced by Phil Spector, Ladies Man added studio effects and disco to Cohen’s repertoire. Cohen would later deride the album as a failed experiment, but it actually holds up quite well in retrospect.

The real lesson of that album may be that no amount of studio trickery can disguise the core of what makes Cohen special – great lyrics, a uniquely intimate delivery and simple yet sturdy melodies. We’d see this again when Cohen added synths and electronic beats to albums like I’m Your Man and The Future. While he generally fares best when he goes back to basics (1984’s Various Positions is a great example of this), I get the feeling that Justice could remix these songs they’d still sound like Leonard Cohen.

As great as his studio recordings are, the three discs I find myself returning to the most in this set are live albums: Live from the Isle of Wight 1970, Field Commander Cohen Live 1979 and Live from London, which was recorded in 2008. While Cohen is known for his intimacy, his songs expand in the live setting, and these discs capture him at key points in his career.

These discs are completely different from one another and taken as a whole they prove once and for all that Cohen isn’t just a poet who happens to sing; he’s a true musician. Take Isle of Wight, in which Cohen is given one of the most daunting tasks any musician ever received – perform in the middle of the night at a festival for 600,000 people right after they’ve experienced an explosive live set from Jimi Hendrix. Yet he has the crowd in the palm of his hand from minute one, offering them moments of hushed folk (“The Stranger Song” “Bird on the Wire”), celebratory country-influenced hoedowns (“Tonight Will Be Fine”) and between-song banter that ranges from humorous to surreal to profound – and sometimes all three.

Field Commander Cohen shows more of the jazz and gospel in his music. Live in London includes all of the above while adding a prominent R&B element. What’s most appealing about the latter is how inspired and passionate Cohen sounds as he looks back at his career in front of arena-sized crowds. This despite the fact that Cohen hadn’t toured for ages and was very upfront about the fact that he only launched this one to make some money after learning that most of his life savings had been stolen.

The sound on all the newly remastered CDs is terrific and it comes in a nice package, but there are flaws that show Columbia didn’t take the care it should have in putting this together. For example, each CD comes in a small cardboard case meant to mimic an album cover. They look great but are so small that it’s often impossible to read what’s on them. I challenge anyone to make out the lyrics printed on the back of Various Positions, I’m Your Man and The Future, or the liner notes to Isle of Wight, without a magnifying glass. You’d think they’d be printed on an insert somewhere, but you’d be wrong. And while Pico Iyer’s essay offers a nice overview of who Cohen is and why he’s important, it would be nice to have more testimonials and photos in the main booklet, including reminiscences from Cohen and his band members.

Like any box set of this size, The Complete Albums Collection is not cheap, and the people who want it most likely have a lot of these albums. My advice: If you own less than half of Cohen’s catalog, it’s worth completing the collection. Cohen is the kind of artist that rewards time spent, and there’s not a disc here that isn’t chock full of worthwhile material. Whether or not Cohen ever releases the new album he’s been teasing fans with, this collection is a great summation of a one-of-a-kind career.

 

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