In addition to boasting one of the best openers ever, Various Positions marks the beginning of a new era for Mr. Cohen. The downtrodden, desolate lyricism of his initial albums was now a distant memory, with tracks such as “Coming Back to You” and “Hallelujah” indicating a most sudden change.
More so than the text though, the music itself signaled that Mr. Cohen had changed quite a bit in his approach – gone was the “man-and-guitar” approach, its place swooped up by one of my favourite things ever – ’80s production. From its very first seconds, “Dance Me to the End of Love”, with its polka rhythm and synthesizer, sounds like it would belong in an Eastern European communist discotheque of the era (my mom who went to those said she’s heard it back when actually), set to couples of teenagers dancing, unaware that the lyrics sung by this strange Western man are actually about the Holocaust.
This album, seemingly paradoxically to me, gets a lot of flak. “Self-parody” and “flat” get thrown around a lot but to me this LP feels like a natural progression in Leonard Cohen’s discography. After the multitude of influences shown on Recent Songs, it would only make sense for him to proceed and get with the times: the Casios, the layering, the disguised darkness hidden in songs such as “The Law” and “The Captain”. Cohen is in top form here, lyrics-wise, with pretty much every track here being prime poetry (“There is no decent place to stand/In a massacre/But if a woman take your hand/Go and stand with her.” – “The Captain”).
The other highlight besides the opening track, the majestic “Hallelujah”, is understandably and arguably his most famous one – it has all the emotion and strength of a power ballad without sounding cheesy or forced, but rather it is like a divine incantation that soars and swoops you away. Truth be told, though, it gets annoying quickly, as good as it might be.
And though I can honestly say that I already love this album (it is consistent all the way through, and at a compact 34 minutes it feels just right), I have to voice my dissatisfaction with “Night Comes On” and “The Captain”. Although both feature some of the best lyrics the man put out, they suffer from a disappointing vocal delivery, and annoying instrumental respectively. I still cannot get over the sort of Country direction that the latter track followed or the boredom in Cohen’s voice on the former. As mentioned though, the lyrics are exceptional and focusing on them helps a lot.
I also feel the need to state that the production, despite my being enamoured with it, hurts the intimacy on tracks such as “Night Comes On” and “Hunter’s Lullaby”. Only on the closing track, “If It Be Your Will” do we get a short glimpse of the old Cohen brand of folk through the chords lifted straight from the debut album. Of course, this song also has the exquisite female backing vocals his ’80s albums are famous for.
But, once again, on tracks such as “Coming Back to You”, “The Law” (The bass! The bass!) and “Heart With No Companion” (the sing-along is beautifully poignant), the production fits like a snug glove. The harmonica, fiddle, piano, everything comes along to make this one of the most unique, and in my opinion underrated, albums in Mr. Cohen’s discography.
Key Tracks: “Dance Me to the End of Love”, “Coming Back to You”, “The Law”, “Night Comes On”, “Hallelujah”, “The Captain”, “Hunter’s Lullaby”, “Heart With No Companion”, “If It Be Your Will”
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When I’m not busy being a corporate drone, you’ll find me writing reviews and essays about music, video games, films and other nerd stuff encompassing all eras.
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