Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Song #122 of 9999 - Famous Blue Raincoat by Leonard Cohen

Song #122 of 9999

Title: Famous Blue Raincoat
Artist: Leonard Cohen
Year: 1971
Album: Songs of Love and Hate

I may have said something similar before but one of the things I'm really loving about this year-long stroll through the last half-century of pop music is the surprises that lurk around every corner. Sometimes it's just a song I hadn't heard before, but more often it's an opportunity to explore an artist whose music has eluded me for whatever reason. I mentioned this in post #79 about Joni Mitchell and I bring it up again tonight with Leonard Cohen.

Too often, I will neglect a certain artist on the basis of their vocal tone quality. Leonard Cohen is one of these artists. It's not that he has a bad voice, but it's not exactly a distinctive voice and it never held my attention. (This may explain the astronomical number of Cohen cover songs—Wikipedia lists over forty versions of tonight's featured song.) As I get older, I find I'm more appreciative of his voice, actually. I also always viewed Cohen as a lyricist first and foremost and never gave much thought to his melodies or harmonic progressions, figuring they were simply there to move the words. But I'm finding more and more that they're pretty essential to the lyrics and often well-matched in ways I hadn't recognized.

I'll admit I had never heard "Famous Blue Raincoat" before; in fact, my familiarity with even Cohen's most famous tracks is pretty vague. It's a devastating song about a love triangle told from the perspective of the man who has lost his lover to another, perhaps a close friend. Written in the form of a letter, the lyrics have just the right amount of detail to root the listener ("New York is cold, but I like where I'm living/There's music on Clinton Street all through the evening") mixed with ambiguity and confusion where the emotion is most raw ("Jane came by with a lock of your hair/She said that you gave it to her/That night that you planned to go clear"). The arrangement is simple but effective with only a nylon-string guitar accompanying Cohen's reedy baritone. The disembodied female voices that shimmer in sympathy above his melodies seem at once to be both soothing and mocking. A sad, beautiful, and complex song from an artist who deserves much more attention from me and everyone else!

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