Issy Marcantonio recounts Leonard Cohen’s third studio album Songs of Love and Hate
Leonard Cohen described the process of making his third album, Songs of Love and Hate, as a time in which “absolutely everything was beginning to fall apart around me […] So I went into a deep and long depression” in an interview with Throat Culture magazine. This for me characterizes the dark, isolated, and uncertain tone of the record, one which feels claustrophobic in composition. It’s a very intimate record, each lyric unwraps ideas surrounding love, freedom, spirituality, and the unknown. Not quite a lyrical Christmas present, but more of a lyrical pass the parcel, with different themes and ideas coming to light with every listen.
The album opens with ‘Avalanche’, a track which features Cohen’s signature deep croon, a desolate force onto itself. The frantic plucking of an acoustic guitar backed by the rise of strings musters up the physical barrenness of the landscape of an avalanche whilst his lyrics offer an emotional starkness. The song is filled with painstakingly cold observations of romantic love, as he hauntingly remarks “The crumbs of love that you offer me/ They’re the crumbs I’ve left behind”. It is Cohen’s ability to string together emotional vulnerability and devastation that marks this as a winter record to me. The type of winter that ruins you, not the snuggling up by the fireplace or the act of putting up of the Christmas tree, but the turn towards deep inward reflection.
Not quite a lyrical Christmas present, but more of a lyrical pass the parcel, with different themes and ideas coming to light with every listen
Cohen possesses a self-awareness of this on the track ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’, blending imagery of Santa Claus with a self-destructive, violence that possesses both Cohen and the listener. This is a song which is all-encompassing, the soft guitar and orchestra are background ornamentation to lyrics which form a deep ravine of emotional despair. The first verse displays all the markings of a turbulent state of mind, “Why don’t you try unwrapping/ A stainless steel razor blade?” and is likely the reason this record has often been dubbed as a haunting presence in Cohen’s extensive catalogue.
The heart of Songs of Love and Hate’s wintery disposition is located on my favourite track on the album ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’. The track features the soft lullaby-like lilts of Corylnn Hanney and Susan Mussman who accompany Cohen as he finds himself in a New York Hotel overhearing wafts of music drifting up from Clinton Street. This song alone justifies the status of this album as a cult classic, it is masterfully heartbreaking. Cohen constructs the song from the perspective of a husband writing a letter to a man who had an affair with his wife. The soft Spanish-inflected guitar on the track thread Cohen’s reflections on betrayal and pain, as he attempts to string his feelings together. “ What can I tell you my brother, my killer / What can I possibly say?” is perhaps one of the albums most tragic lines with the deftness at which it conveys the intimate trauma and helplessness of its composer.
This album feels like a hibernation of sorts. Leonard Cohen is cooped up, pouring out the contents of his soul, and the listener is cooped up with him. Despite, the stark imagery of Songs of Love and Hate, Cohen’s delivery of his lyrics creates an atmosphere in which you at once feel isolated from the wider world and simultaneously being drawn into the depths of human experience, emphatically connected with all the lost souls of this world. This is an album to cosy up with during these winter months in which everything is getting darker, but make sure to have a box of tissues on hand because there will be tears, by god, there will be tears.