by Nicholas Tristan
Leonard Cohen’s death had an incredible impact on me, as both a musician and a writer. Since my early teen years, he has been one of the foremost influences in my life. I’ve heard every Cohen studio album multiple times, and most of his live ones too. His books of poetry, his novel, the numerous documentaries on him and his work...I've always sought out anything with Leonard Cohen's involvement.
Since his death, there has been a lot of discussion about the genius of his lyrics, the incredible emotional connection people have to his work (I’d recommend you check out Sean O’Neal’s haunting, heartbreaking write-up at the AV Club for a good example of this), but “Cohen as a musician” gets overlooked in the conversation. The lasting impact of his oft-covered songs like “Hallelujah”, “Suzanne”, and “Dance Me To The End Of Love” show his skill as a songwriter goes beyond just his lyrics, but there is less focus on Cohen’s albums as cohesive works than with other artists like Bob Dylan, David Bowie, or Joni Mitchell.
Maybe it’s the ubiquity of these covers that has reduced Cohen to the poet laureate of pop music rather than an active participant in its development. There was a great tweet from @emmetmatheson: “you could tell what kind of party you were at by which Leonard Cohen tribute CD the host had; the one w/ Nick Cave or the one w/ Don Henley” -- and this shows something very true, that people tend to listen to Leonard Cohen covers as much or more than they do listen to his music.
There is a conventional narrative that categorizes Cohen’s recorded work in a linear fashion: the sparse, melancholy troubadour of Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs from a Room that leads into the desolate song cycle of Songs of Love and Hate. From here, we move into the psalmic beauty of Various Positions, the synth-driven divinations of I’m Your Man, the MTV-ready 1990s nihilism of The Future, the lush poetics of Ten New Songs and the underrated Dear Heather, and finally his own twisted take on Adult Contemporary with Old Ideas and 2016’s superlative You Want It Darker.
Every album I’ve listed above, at the very least, is viewed with a degree of fondness by both Cohen fans and mainstream music critics if not being considered outright classics. But for a man that was so bold and unconventional, a man who arrived on Canada’s literary scene by having his masterpiece novel Beautiful Losers condemned by the Toronto Star as “the most revolting novel written on Canadian soil”, there surely has to be something bizarre and buried and forgotten.
There is: Leonard Cohen’s misbegotten collaboration with producer Phil Spector and his oblique Wall of Sound, Death of a Ladies’ Man.
The album, released in 1977, was almost universally reviled upon its release. Rolling Stone sneered that the album was a “total waste”. Robert Christgau, in his one negative review of a Cohen studio album, found the collaboration with Spector ill-advised and called the arrangements “banal”. Leonard Cohen himself would later refer to the album as a “catastrophe”.
Is it that bad? The critical consensus has softened in recent years, with a positive review on Allmusic and LA Weekly recently calling it “delightfully uneven”. Perhaps time spent with some of Cohen’s later musical oddities, like the karaoke backing track country of “Closing Time”, has primed Cohen’s listeners for Death of a Ladies’ Man's eccentricities.
Unfortunately, Death of a Ladies’ Man mostly deserves its maligned reputation. It’s not that Cohen and Spector couldn’t have made a good album together, it’s that Spector seems so intent on making a record that Cohen barely fits onto. Cohen’s weak, wavering voice, which at this point lacked the rich, guttural quality developed around Various Positions, is hopelessly lost among lushly rendered, overbearing orchestrations. Cohen’s songwriting remains strong as always, but celestial choirs, overlapping percussion, and the world’s loudest piano have a tendency to overtake his deceptively simple melodies.
And there are good songs! “I Left A Woman Waiting” could have been classic Cohen with a better arrangement, “Iodine” has a boozy charm to it, and the title track is probably the best melding of Cohen and Spector’s sensibilities. The childish funk of “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On” is the closest precedent we have to I’m Your Man’s album nadir “Jazz Police”, but it’s infectious, good fun, and shows Cohen’s budding adventurousness in his songwriting.
Death of a Ladies’ Man isn’t a misunderstood masterpiece, but it shows Cohen as something he's rarely identified as being: a confident, risk-taking songwriter and musician. The next time someone brings up how great a Leonard Cohen cover is, or how his weird his voice sounded, consider the whole of his work: sweeping, sprawling, ambitious, and musical. He’s missed greatly already.
Nicholas Tristan is a Toronto-based writer, producer, composer, and podcaster.