Leonard Cohen once famously commented that he only ever aspired to being a minor poet. Having achieved that goal on the strength of collections of verse like Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) and The Spice-Box of Earth (1961), he went on to garner acclaim as a novelist with The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). Only in his mid-thirties did he turn his talents seriously to music, releasing a debut album in 1968. Over three decades later, Cohen enjoys the dubious honor of being best known as pop music’s undefeated champion miserablist, an artist who was singing spectacularly depressing songs when latter-day camp melancholics like Morrissey were still moping around in short trousers. And on the basis of that reputation as rock’s most enduringly gloomy lyricist (with a voice to match), his oeuvre has become required listening for generations of students in darkened rooms the world over.
Although that reputation is largely based on his most familiar material — late ’60s/early ’70s songs like “Suzanne”, “Sisters of Mercy”, “Famous Blue Raincoat”, and “Avalanche” — his subsequent, increasingly sporadic releases have never been received as the most uplifting of affairs either. By the time of his most recent studio recording — 1992’s The Future — a commonly heard criticism was that Cohen had ceased to care as much about the musical component of his work, or his vocal delivery, and was contenting himself with gravel-voiced, sung-spoken pronouncements on the awful state of things and prophecies of general doom set to an unobtrusive soundtrack.
While there may be more than a grain of truth to such assessments of his later recordings and while the Leonard-Cohen-as-arch-poet-of-misery stereotype certainly has some basis in reality, such characterizations don’t really do full justice to the man and his work. In that regard, Field Commander Cohen — recorded on the UK leg of his tour for 1979’s Recent Songs — is a timely release that offers a more balanced account of his music beyond the popular cliches, underscoring the breadth and depth of Cohen’s art, as well as his abilities as a captivating live performer. (Field Commander Cohen will also please fans who have worn out their bootleg tapes of this material.)
Although this album documents Cohen’s rich talents as a singer-songwriter, more importantly, perhaps, it emphasizes his skill as a performer interacting with other musicians. On this release, Cohen doesn’t hog the spotlight and play his songs as a solo artist with a faceless backing group. Rather, the often intricate and multi-faceted arrangements are delivered collaboratively, with an almost theatrical sensibility that owes as much to the performances given by the cast of instrumentalists and backing singers as it does to Cohen’s vocal contributions.
The material included on Field Commander Cohen dates back to the 1968 debut The Songs of Leonard Cohen, blending classic numbers such as “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” and “So Long, Marianne” with less familiar fare from his ’70s albums. Whereas “The Stranger Song” retains the stark beauty of its studio incarnation with Cohen accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, “Bird on the Wire” forfeits some of the sparse simplicity of the original for a more bluesy, electric makeover. The tracks that best capture the collaborative magic of Cohen and his fellow musicians are drawn from his ’70s releases. For instance, the slower rendering of “Lover Lover Lover” from New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974) is enhanced by John Bilezikjian’s oud. Similarly, the flamenco-flavored “The Gypsy’s Wife” and “The Window” from Recent Songs are graced with Raffi Hakopian’s beautifully mournful violin. The second of these tracks also offers a perfect example of the graceful interplay of Cohen’s vocals with those of singers Jennifer Warnes and Sharon Robinson, itself a signature characteristic of much of the material gathered here.
When you listen to the enthusiastic reaction of the crowd — applauding at the start and at the end of tracks — it’s hard to believe that this album was recorded in cynical post-punk Britain when Cohen wasn’t exactly at the height of his popularity. (That of course had changed by the early ’80s when the likes of Nick Cave had begun to declare their debt to him more openly via cover versions, thereby alerting younger listeners to the degree of hip credibility that Cohen had always had.)
In the absence of any new material, Field Commander Cohen is a welcome reminder not only of Leonard Cohen’s genius as a songwriter but also of his abilities in concert. And as for his storied gloominess, this release bears subtle traces of the kind of knowing self-mockery and irony that have always been present in his work. After all, a man who can refer to himself as “grocer of despair” with a straight face, as Cohen does in the title track, clearly has a sense of humor.