Leonard Cohen has always been more of a poet than a rock musician - a lonely voice, usually tinged with a metaphysical sort of pain, burdened with a terrible, stark message that it had to deliver. Music was added to the words, sometimes, because more people could be induced to listen to the words in that form, and sometimes because the music added a dimension to the words that could not be conveyed through the purely verbal interaction of idea and image.
But the words have always been basic; nobody ever bought a Cohen album for the beat or the sound. They bought them to hear popular music's traditional theme - the wail of the hormones - transformed and renewed, its overtones and implications explored at a depth and intensity unreachably beyond "Light My Fire" or "Ruby Tuesday" or even "Yesterday." Technically, these records were always rather thin, the arrangements rudimentary, the muscianship no more than competent, the voive almost good enough to be unexeceptional.
Until now, that is. Now, the talents of Cohen the lonely troubador have been harnessed to the machine of Phil Spector, entrepreneur and sonic producer extraordinaire ("the Richard Strauss of rock music," as one of my more musically literate friends remarked), and the result is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I would advise all Cohen fans to accquire "Death of a Ladies' Man" (Warner Bros. BS 3125), thougn many of them will find it largely disorienting, because this collaboration is not likely to happen again and the record may become a collector's item.
Spectator's well-known "wall of sound" technique is good enough when a record has nothing else to do that is more important, but with Cohen supplying the words, the accompaniment is usually irrelevant and occasionally a downright nuisance. The combination works perfectly once in this album, in a number called "Memories" which evokes the feel of the '50s with uncanny accuracy. In this song the music itself is a large part of what the music is about, and that suits Spector's style perfectly. And at the few points where the words matter, for once the elaborate arrangement punctuates and illustrates the words effectively, poignantly, hilariously.
Eventually, I would like to see Cohen rerecord about half of these songs in the sparse, stark style familiar from his recordings of the '60s. Meanwhile, it is doubtful that they would have been written if he had not run into Spector, and since the album is vintage Cohen we should be glad that this uneasy alliance took place.
Cohen's is not the only voice from the '60s that has been popping up on records recently. A few others are briefly noted below.
The Best of Arlo Guthrie (Warner BSK 3117). It is remarkable how well "Alice's Restaurant" has weathered the 10 years since I first heard it. It sounds good n this nostalgic collection, as do "Coming Into Los Angeles," "City of New Orleans" and even the dump old "Motorcycle Song."
Blood Sweat and Tears: "Bright New Day" (ABCAB 1015). If the title implies any radical departure from what BS&T used to do in the late '60s, it is misleading. David Clayton-Thomas and his colleagues are back at the same old stand, serving the same basic product, and I guess I'm willing to listen as long as they're willing to record it.
The Original Fleetwood Mac (Sire 6045). Ten years ago this group was quite different from what it is today - and very good in its different way, as these dozen cuts (not previously released on LP) amply document. The most notable difference is the presence of Peter Green, an extraordinary blues man; the content of this collection is basic blues and it is superbly done.