Part of the fallout from the late '60s psychedelic culture was a generation of singer-songwriters whose music abandoned the communal reverie of rock in favor of something lonelier and more personal. While the simplicity and candor of these singer-songwriters recalled the folk mode, artists like Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor really owed more to the self-absorbed, literary style of Bob Dylan.
Starting with his 1967 debut, "The Songs of Leonard Cohen," the Canadian native has proved to be one of the more artistically successful singer-songwriters. From his experience as a writer and poet, Cohen drew the discipline and maturity needed to transform a constant stream of weary confessions on love into a bleak but compelling vision of a world revolving on romantic melancholy. His new album, "Various Positions" (Passport PB6045), the first in five years, finds Cohen again drawn to love with all the passion and despair of a junkie after a fix.
Cohen's magic is that he can employ such slight musical skills, including a rangeless voice, and indulge such an unrelieved atmosphere of emotional defeat and still emerge with music that is hypnotically attractive. He is sympathetically assisted by producer-arranger John Lissaur, whose stark musical settings dramatize the intimate feel of Cohen's dry baritone. When Lissaur does add a musical flourish, it is invariably adroit and spare -- the honky-tonk fiddle and piano in "Captain," Jennifer Warnes' echoic harmony in the haunted "If It Be Your Will," the choir in "Hallelujah."
While Cohen's songs range from the confessional to the allegorical, they ceaselessly portray love as a harrowing inevitability, both a necessity and a kind of willful imprisonment. In "Heart With No Companion," an exhausted-sounding Cohen raises his glass to the incompleteness of our lives: "For the heart with no companion/ For the soul without a king/ For the prima ballerina/ Who cannot dance to anything." Cohen might also eulogize the poet without a melody, because it is only his lapses into droning tunelessness that keep "Various Positions" from being a real triumph.
When Cohen does have a good song, as in the cabaret-styled "Dance Me to the End of Love" or the fetching "Coming Back to You," his emotional surrenders become that much more attractive. But Cohen is a highly personal, even corrosive, singer-songwriter, and the appeal of "Various Positions" ultimately revolves around the acceptance of his personality, which has dominated the merely musical virtues of his records since he started.
Like Leonard Cohen, highly touted newcomer Suzanne Vega prints her lyrics on her album sleeve. She also admits she has spent years listening to Cohen's albums. But while Cohen's songs seem shaped in a dark basement in the middle of winter, Vega's tunes sound composed on a park bench in the autumnal glow. The feel of her attractive debut album, "Suzanne Vega" (A&M SP6-5072), is so light and reflective that you have to wonder what publicist foolishly burdened her with the Dylan comparisons.
Producer Lenny Kaye has set Vega's impressionist imagery, soft voice and guitar in such smoothly flowing, nearly pastoral settings that Vega herself rarely seems to intrude on her own songs. This is partly appropriate because her poetic strengths are chiefly impressionistic and evocative. In one of her finest songs, "Small Blue Thing," Vega's metaphor expands into a marvel of physical images: "I am falling down the stairs/ I am skipping on the sidewalk/ I am thrown against the sky/ I am raining down in pieces/ I am scattering like light."
From the album's first cut, "Cracking," where Vega's cool spoken delivery recalls Laurie Anderson, through nine more originals, Vega scatters a dizzying array of observations on life and herself that seem to float by the listener. The effect, when coupled with Kaye's delicate musical shadings, is a slow, persistent seduction exactly as implied in Vega's "Undertow." If Vega's debut album seems less than fully realized because of her elliptical poetry and unobtrusiveness, it is still an endearing work and one that whets the appetite for a follow-up.