Ashamedly, this time spent with Songs of Love and Hate is my first proper Leonard Cohen experience. It’s as emotionally intense as I imagined, yet surprisingly gentle too. The songs are comprised of acoustic guitars guiding passionate tales of love, hate, and everything in between, with poignant imagery that references the likes of Joan of Arc and Cain and Abel.
It comes as no surprise that Cohen was a writer long before taking up music. The album embraces a brutal honesty that, although daunting on the surface, reminds you that bleakness can be beautiful. It exudes the type of wisdom that only comes from authentic human experience. The fiendish sense of humour only highlights the degree of genuine struggle. After all, there is always light to be found in the darkness.
Cohen’s baritone voice is one of the most captivating I’ve ever experienced. Opening track “Avalanche” is a stunning recitation of a poem he had written prior to the record, sung with such sinister inflections that it hypnotises you into a deep despair. ‘The crumbs of love that you offer me/they’re the crumbs I’ve left behind’, he declares. Rarely do you hear a vocal performance match the anguish of such words. He himself has since pointed out that ‘it’s a disturbing voice… there is anxiety there.’ Quite the understatement.
The arrangements on Love and Hate are carefully measured to make sure nothing distracts from the poetry. I love loud and bombastic music, but sometimes the most powerful moments are restrained. The sensational “Famous Blue Raincoat” is one such example, with strings so quiet that you can barely make them out, moving faintly in the background. Don’t even get me started on backing vocals spread throughout the album, particularly the children’s chorus.
One criticism I’ve read of Love and Hate is that it lacks the variety of previous records. Whilst it can occasionally feel rather one-note, it’s an aura of reflective melancholy that is simply unmatched in contemporary music. Besides that, songs like “Diamonds in the Mine” and “Sing Another Song, Boys” do lighten the mood, particularly with Cohen’s more untamed delivery.
If it wasn’t already obvious, I have become completely enamoured with Love and Hate. It’s one of the most powerful and cleansing records I’ve ever heard, in the same realm as early Nick Cave, and the 2018 album from Daughters. To anyone yet to immerse themselves in Leonard Cohen, I urge you to take the plunge. If you’re anything like me – miserable, yet whimsical – then Songs of Love and Hate is an excellent entry point.
9 out of 10
One person and a guitar; a combination of timeless simplicity and beauty. That is, when it’s done right, and boy does Songs of Love and Hate do it right. Never quite as simple as it appears, the album certainly is timeless, and plenty of other things too. Tender, magisterial, and wisened are qualities that come to mind, though none quite do justice to the innerworldliness of what goes on.
In part I think that’s because the album is built around Leonard Cohen’s meanderings. It’s like an epic poem in LP form, complete with delicate theatrical sprinklings of strings, horns, and choral hollering. Absurdly, Cohen didn’t see fit to become a singer-songwriter until his thirties. Before that he was an author and a poet, and those experiences are made clear by the weight of his words and the authority with which he delivers them. He’s lived, loved, hurt, been hurt, and had ample time to learn how to write about it all in terms that lift the fog.
Gentler tracks like “Dress Rehearsal Rag” and “Avalanches” are personal favourites as I write this, but the tracklist has a tendency to sway differently each time. From lyrics to instrumentation to Bob Johnston’s production, the record carries itself with the unshakeable elegance of master craftsmanship. There’s a lot going on behind Cohen’s earthy, bard-like veneer. It’s a joy to listen to. A sad, bitter, solemn, rueful, depressing, hopeless joy.
9 out of 10
From the simmering, cinematic opening moments of “Avalanche”, I was smitten with Songs Of Love And Hate. Cohen’s vocal stretches out over an urgent guitar as swells of strings sweep across to form a backdrop. It’s a suspenseful, moody start that entices with each listen.
The album is full of similarly evocative moments, and while Cohen’s lyrics are often the focus the musicianship throughout the tracklist is scintillating. “Famous Blue Raincoat” paints a delicate, sentimental vignette around the lyrical letter, backing vocals quivering above subtle surges of strings. It exemplifies the bittersweet melancholy that much of the album conjures. By the time I’ve reached “Joan of Arc”, as it ebbs and flows between sweet solo guitar and backing vocals, Cohen has become a puppetmaster of emotions. I find myself misty-eyed for the whole affair.
Sitting atop all that, Cohen’s writing is emotive and referential, twisting likeness and telling vivid stories, whether it’s grim contemplations in “Dress Rehearsal Rag”, the lamentations of “Diamonds in the Mine”, or the dual thread that runs through “Joan of Arc”. The album title promises strong emotions, and Cohen certainly delivers.
It seems as though this album isn’t widely lauded as a notable entry in Leonard Cohen’s discography. Cohen himself called it ‘gimmicky’ and ‘an experiment that failed’. However, it’s not an opinion I share. Songs Of Love And Hate has me more enamoured than a Dylan, Reed, or Young release of the time. Brilliant musicianship and Cohen’s trademark lyricism combined with intimate emotion laid bare make for an album I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with.
9 out of 10