Today I’m going to write about an artist and his music who is much misunderstood. On many an occasion I’ve been talking about music to people, and when Leonard Cohen’s name comes up, everyone immediately says the same thing, “oh, his music’s depressing and miserable.” It seems to be that he’s the most misunderstood man in music. To his huge legion of fans, his music is neither depressing nor miserable. Leonard Cohen is a writer, poet, artist and maybe, a reluctant singer. For five decades, he’s been recording music which I’d say is realistic, exploring moods, feelings and situations most people will have experienced. His music is almost like poetry set to music, exploring and articulating problems many people face. Perviously, he’s written about wider issues, including politics and religion. I’m Your Man was released in February 1988, nearly twenty-one years after his debut album The Songs of Leonard Cohen in December 1967. Two of the songs on I’m Your, First We Take Manhattan and Ain’t No Cure For Love were first heard on Jennifer Warnes 1987 album Famous Blue Raincoat, an album that paid homage to her friend Leonard Cohen’s music and which I’ve written about before. She’s been one of his backing singers on several albums, was his vocal arranger and guest singer on various albums, including I’m Your Man. However, it was a very different sounding album Leonard Cohen album, Jennifer Warnes found herself singing on. 

This album saw Leonard Cohen introduce a more modern sound to his music, with synths used on several tracks. The production sound has been described as synthpop, where the synth is the dominant sounding instrument on the track. Although the synth does feature heavily on the album, this shouldn’t put people of. It was Leonard’s attempt to modernize the sound of his music, and although quite different to previous albums, he should be praised for experimenting, allowing his music to evolve, instead of sticking to a tried and tested formula like many artists of his generation. However, how would critics and fans like his new sound?

I’m Your Man was Leonard’s eight album and was recorded between August and November of 1987. It was released in February 1988, and well received by the critics. Fans too, liked the album, especially in the UK, Canada and Norway. The album was certified silver in the UK, gold in Canada where he was born and spent sixteen weeks at number one in Norway. It seemed that Leonard Cohen’s new sound was well received by critics and fans, but the big question is, what does it sound like?

I’m Your Man opens with First We Take Manhattan which opens with electronic drums and synth, the sound very different to anything Leonard’s recorded before. The sound is certainly moderne, and could only have been recorded during the eighties. This isn’t is a criticism, merely an observation. His voice, when it enters, seems stronger, as he half-speaks, half-sings the lyrics with a voice drenched in character, and a certain amount of cynicism. As usual, his lyrics are complex, but here they seem to be about the difficulties facing a musician trying to break through, after twenty years. As he sings, backing vocalists joyously sweep in, their voices a total contrast to his. The song has almost a minimalist arrangement. Although the synths and drums combine to produce quite a full sound, they’re the only instruments used on the track. However, the sound they produced has aged well, and combined with a charismatic vocal from Leonard, assisted by his backing singers, it’s a great track to open the album.

A lush dramatic saxophone solo drenches the introduction to There Ain’t No Cure For Love. It combines with keyboards and drums before Leonard sings, his voice even better than the opening track. Here, he sounds in emotional pain, lovesick,  as if he’s experiencing the lyrics he’s singing about. In the lyrics, he’s singing about being in love, longing for his partner, about how nothing can cure the feeling and how hard it is to get over this feeling. He sees her everywhere, in everything he does and everywhere he goes. These lyrics are some of the best on the album. They’re like some of the best poetry you’ll ever read. When Leonard sings, accompanied by the backing vocalists they bring them to life. You can hear the pain and hurt in his voice. The arrangement is perfect for the track. It’s a combination of keyboards, rhythm section and guitar, producing an arrangement that is sympathetic to the lyrics and Leonard’s deliver. Overall, it’s a brilliant track, thanks to Leonard’s lyrics and vocal, combined with a sympathetic arrangement, which is a synth free zone.

Although the synths were missing from the previous track, they make a return during the introduction to Everybody Knows. They chug and sweep along, as Leonard’s sings, his voice deeper and richer. A guitar plays in the background, as he pessimistically sings about how the rights and wrongs of various situations, how good guys lots and how he’s been betrayed by someone he lost. His worldview is pessimistic, maybe even cynical. Throughout the track, his backing singers subtly accompany him, adding to the song’s beauty. This song was one of his first collaborations with Sharon Robinson, who he would cowrote much more after this. She cowrote each song on his 2001 album Ten New Songs. Here, the arrangement just features, synths, drums, bass and acoustic guitar which combine to produce a full sounding arrangement. Two of the best parts of the arrangement are a lovely acoustic guitar solo, and a throbbing, constant bass line. However, what makes the track is Leonard’s vocal, made all the better by a great contribution from backing vocalist, Jennifer Warnes. 

Drums then keyboards open the title track, I’m Your Man, a song that has a continental sound, and feel, reminding me of France. When Leonard sings, his voice  has a gravelly sound, as he slowly sings the lyrics. It’s a track that meanders, beautifully along, full of character and charisma, due to Leonard’s lyrics. In them he sounds infatuated, willing to do anything for a woman he’s fallen madly in love with.  As usual, his lyrics have a strong narrative, painting a picture that comes to life as he sings. The arrangement mostly features the keyboards, with occasional contributions from the drums. Again this almost minimalistic arrangement is perfect for the song, allowing Leonard’s charismatic vocal and brilliant lyrics to take centre-stage. 

Take This Waltz begins with keyboards and a violin playing, before Leonard sings. His vocal is stronger, beginning higher then getting much deeper. This song is based on a poem byFredrico Gracia Lorca, entitled Little Viennese Waltz, and the arrangement reminds me of a waltz. The arrangement has a classical feel sometimes. Mainly, it’s just keyboards and violin that play. Such is the versatility of the keyboards, that they replicate a number of sounds. Later in the track, a trumpet plays, adding to the lovely, old-fashioned feel of the song. What makes the track is Leonard’s vocal, and the interplay between his backing singers. They play a huge part in the track’s success, sweeping sweetly and melodically, in and out. Together with a much stronger vocal from Leonard, it’s a potent combination, producing a very different sounding track.

It’s an almost frantic, discordant short burst of sound that you hear before Leonard sings the introduction of Jazz Police. Here, the synths return, playing a big part in the track. It’s just the synth and vocal, accompanied by backing vocalists. They also play a big part in the track, at one point singing some of the songs’s lyrics to the Star Trek theme. Leonard’s vocal is quick, he half-sings, half speaks the lyrics, with usual gravelly sound. Here, the sound is much fuller, almost grandiose sometimes. Later, a piano solo is accompanied by a bass, then electronic drums and synths accompanying the vocal. Occasionally, the track almost comes to a halt, allowing the backing singers to give a sweeping, almost grandiose performance. Jazz Police is quite different to previous songs. This is because of the way the song is arranged and the lyrics. When you listen to the lyrics, he sings “they’ll never understand our culture,” is this a reference to the way his music is perceived by people? Although very different in sound, I like this track, especially the fuller arrangement, his vocal and the way the backing singers are given more freedom to express themselves.

Drums, percussion and keyboards combine at the start of I Can’t Forget, which has a lovely melodic sound. After that, comes Leonard’s rich deep and gravelly vocal, which as usual, has a story to tell. In the song he realizes he’s growing old, hardly recognizes himself and thinks back to a happier time. He then decides to go and find someone he once loved, as that’s how he wants to end his life. As usual, his lyrics are excellent, you find yourself empathising and sympathizing with him, sense his frustration and admire his courage in seeking happiness. Leonard delivers the lyrics brilliantly, accompanied by his backing vocalists, whose voices are soft and thoughtful as they sing. Here, it’s a much subtler arrangement. Keyboards and drums are the mainstay of the sound, and together with the backing vocalists, they help Leonard create a wonderful song.

I’m Your Man ends with Tower of Song, a track that begins with percussion and bass, and Leonard whispery, charismatic vocal accompanied by some melodic backing vocals courtesy of Jennifer Warnes. The track has a minimalist sound, as it meanders slowly and thoughtfully along. As he sings the lyrics, he’s thoughtful, not letting his anger and bitterness show as he sings about growing old and death, how people perceive him and about a woman who really dislikes him, Jennifer Warnes backing vocals are a perfect foil for his vocal, and her contribution is subtle, beautifully understated. Between great lyrics, and Leonard and Jennifer’s vocals, this is a perfect way to end the album.

Since the release of I’m Your Man in 1988, I’ve always loved this album. Whilst listening again to the album several times, it’s apparent it’s an album that like a good bottle of wine, has aged well. Not every album from this time that featured keyboards and synths, has aged well. However, they didn’t feature Leonard Cohen’s vocal and lyrics. This to me, is one of his finest albums, and I’m not alone. Tom Waits counts says this is one of his favorite albums, which is high praise coming from an artists of his stature. Several times I’ve let people who claimed not to like Leonard Cohen’s music, and each time, they’ve quickly changed their opinion of his music. For anyone who hasn’t heard Leonard Cohen’s music, this is a good place to start. I think this is one of his most accessible albums, and would recommend it to anyone. It features eight great songs, some of Leonard’s best lyrics and some great contributions from Jennifer Warnes. If you just want to hear his earlier music, his Greatest Hits album is a good starting point. Standout Tracks: First We Take Manhattan, There Ain’t No Cure For Love, I Can’t Forget and Tower of Song.


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