Upon release in late 1967, Leonard Cohen’s debut entitled The Songs of Leonard Cohen would reach the lower end of the US Hot 100 charts but do considerably better in the UK, barely missing the top ten. Released when he was already 33 years of age, these songs describe life in the quieter and darker parts of the 60s rather than the technicolour of some of his contemporaries. The Montrealer moved to New York for a time and came to the attention of Judy Collins who covered many of his songs including a few Cohen future classics.
“Suzanne” was originally released in a book of poems, a sensuous song of love and religion where she will “feed you tea and oranges that come all the way from China”. It has a mystical quality far beyond it’s spare accompaniment that would become of Cohen’s most beloved songs and one that Pitchfork ranked as #41 on their list of best songs of the 1960s. The other Cohen song that appeared on the list is “So Long, Marianne” that was inspired by Marianne Ihlen whom he met in Greece and lived with throughout the 60s. This time producer John Simon adds some bass and female backing vocals on a joyous singalong where we “laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again”.
As he moved around the globe, many of the tracks remark on meeting people along the way of life. “Sister of Mercy” about travelers who shared his Edmonton hotel room one night adds fairground sounds to the background. “I’m just a station on your way” sings Cohen on “Winter Lady” that is lighter in tone than the previous heavy religious tones of “Master Song”. Female vocals again appear on the lovely and sentimental pop song “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”.
Surprisingly, the reviews of The Songs of Leonard Cohen were mixed upon release but is a record that has grown in stature over the years. It’s not a perfect album, rather a flawed masterpiece with several essential Cohen songs that have endured for over 50 years. The spare and intimate recording is a true landmark and as the UK sales agree, a legendary bedsit album. It is one that continues to find it’s way into record collections the world over.