Looking back on the simplicity and intimacy of 'Songs From a Room', the second album from poet-turned-lyricist Leonard Cohen.
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Long before Leonard Cohen was a lyricist, he was a poet. The Canadian spent the 1950s and the majority of the 1960s contemplating weighty themes of faith, love, and death with emotive eloquence. Expectedly, then, Cohen’s preoccupation with words bled into his songwriting when he first embarked upon a career in music in 1967.
After making his dense debut with Songs of Leonard Cohen, the singer-songwriter delivered perhaps his most poetic work just two years later with Songs From a Room. His sophomore record flew fairly under the critical radar at the time of its release, a fact that remains true even now.
The album received a mixed reception in 1969 and lacked the sleeper hits that some of his other records produced – ‘Hallelujah’ from Various Positions, for example, received revived interest thanks to John Cale and Jeff Buckley’s takes on the track. But despite a relatively lacklustre legacy, Songs From a Room is one of Cohen’s most exquisite offerings.
Abandoning the overproduction of his debut, Cohen rightfully allows his verse to take the spotlight. He once told Mojo, “It’s very stark. A lot of my friends who were musical purists have castigated me for the lushness and overproduction of my first record, and I was determined to do a very simple album.” This simplicity encourages the intimacy of his songwriting to thrive, and the weight of his words ensures that the record doesn’t feel any less dense.
For better or worse, his voice is at the forefront of every song, making declarations of love, of revolution, of regret. Though debate surrounding Cohen’s vocals has been rife, with many making the reductive argument that he simply can’t sing, it’s all the more affecting to hear those intimate words coming directly from their source.
Over subdued and simplistic country-infused folk instrumentals, every line Cohen utters is intricately written and gorgeous, yet strikingly honest. From the mundane imagery of a bird on a wire to the soft but sad affirmation that “tonight will be fine”, there is clear intent behind the meaning and placement of every word. To tell a story, to share a feeling, to make a statement – Cohen finds the words to convey it all.
The record’s opener became a staple in Cohen’s live set, as well as a sonic healing for the songwriter. In the liner notes for The Best of Leonard Cohen, he stated, “I always begin my concert with this song. It seems to return me to my duties.” It’s not difficult to understand why Cohen became so attached to the track.
Preempting the rest of the album, ‘Bird on the Wire’ features picturesque imagery while ruminating on regret and forgiveness. The instrumentals give way to the song’s themes, as Cohen’s voice is accompanied only by a singular guitar and soaring strings. It’s at once melancholic and hopeful. Kriss Kristofferson has even stated that he intends to get the first few lines tattooed.
‘Story of Isaac’, meanwhile, juxtaposes innocence with sacrifice, while ‘Seems So Long Ago, Nancy’ is a haunting ode to a woman Cohen knew who committed suicide. ‘The Partisan’ tangles up a fiddly guitar with words of the French Revolution, while ‘Tonight Will Be Fine’ laments unrequited love with surprising assuredness.
Throughout the record, Cohen was unafraid to touch on some of the heaviest experiences of his own life and of humanity as a whole. Unwavering in his ability to convey them with conviction and cause, he delivered a collection of songs that are at once grand and intimate. Their simplistic soundtrack only allows them to shine further. The record is enchantingly understated, putting the focus exactly where it should be – on Cohen’s poetic musings.
Songs From a Room might not contain the instrumental gravitas of some of Cohen’s other work, but it’s one of the finest examples of his lyrical prowess. With its intense imagery and vulnerability pasted on a stripped-back soundtrack, it’s one of his most intimate releases, so much so that it almost feels like we’re in that room with him.