Somewhere, it’s the witching hour, and a sad sack is holding on for dear life while Leonard Cohen, with his brooding, monochromatic voice, sings, “Well I stepped into an avalanche/It covered up my soul”—the opening line on “Avalanche,” the opening track on the masochistically delightful Songs of Love and Hate. Released in 1970, the lyric can be interpreted as a post-Altamont statement of lost innocence, but more likely it was a far more personal cry from a man disillusioned by his fledgling career as a singer-songwriter.
Three years prior, on the heels of the Summer of Love, Cohen released his debut,
Songs of Leonard Cohen. He was 33, a late age to come to the game, though it was—not so ironically, for a religious zealot who in ’96 was ordained a Zen Buddhist monk—Christ’s age at passing. But Cohen’s nouveau folk, which bucked the genre’s trend of earnest protest, benefited from his maturity. The album also introduced Cohen’s long line of lady friends living out the repercussions of “free love.”
It was followed, in ’68, by Songs From a Room. Cohen’s tune had changed from casual to political. Songs like “A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes” and “The Old Revolution” were obvious admonishments of the Vietnam War. But it took a deep thinker like Anthony DeCurtis, who wrote the liner notes to these three reissues, to draw parallels between Cohen’s “Story of Isaac” and Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.”
A celebrated poet and novelist in his native Canada even before he released his first album, Cohen’s subsequent musing on avalanches was probably a reaction to the commercial reception—or lack thereof—of his first two albums. Come to think of it, “reactionary” is the perfect theme for these reissues, since the majority of these songs are thinly veiled indictments of the ’60s. Other than the liners, what’s new here are five previously unreleased songs, including less morbid versions of “Bird on the Wire” (originally called “Like a Bird”) and “Dress Rehearsal Rag.” But only “Store Room,” a perky (for Cohen) number about the Man take, take, taking without consequence, proves a real breakthrough. Beyond that, it’s all packaging—a curious homage to the antithesis of superficiality.