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Music Review: Leonard Cohen – The Complete Columbia Albums Collection

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While Leonard Cohen’s name may not carry the same instant, household sort of recognition as someone like say Bob Dylan, his body of work over some four decades as a singer, songwriter, poet and all around renaissance man is no less remarkable.

From the moment of his debut album for Columbia, 1967’s Songs Of Leonard Cohen, Cohen established a name for himself as a songwriter of uncommon depth with songs like “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne.” Already an established novelist when that record came out, his reputation as a formidable talent equally rooted in the traditions of Dylan and Gershwin, has only grown to legend status in the decades since. Cohen’s voice — particularly on his later work — is nearly as unmistakable as his songs, pulling off the unique trick of sounding weathered and wise, yet oddly slick and soulful all at once.

Some of Cohen’s best known work — songs like “Bird On The Wire” for example — may have gained its greatest popularity when interpreted by other artists. But it is on his lesser known songs, like “Democracy,” “Boogie Street,” “I’m Your Man,” and “First, We Take Manhattan” (well okay, that one is fairly well known), that the revelation of his true artistic voice is best discovered. On songs like these, Cohen can take on the persona of wise old sage, poetic bard, hopeless romantic, and street hustler, sometimes within a single song.

Like the best songwriters though, Cohen is mostly a great storyteller. His words come most alive when he is adopting the character persona of the drinkers and angels of compassion that populate the seedy bar of “Closing Time,” or the more curious mix of humanity inhabiting a place like the “Chelsea Hotel.”

If you haven’t yet discovered Leonard Cohen for yourself, The Complete Columbia Albums Collection is probably not the best place to start. For that, you’d probably be far better served with the crash course offered by a collection like The Essential Leonard Cohen. But it is by far the most complete.

This exquisitely assembled boxed set features completely remastered versions of all 17 of Leonard Cohen’s albums for his career long label, Columbia. In addition to the studio recordings, this includes all of his live albums from Live At The Isle Of Wight (recorded in 1970), right up to 2009’s two-disc Live In London set.

All of the albums are housed in a simple, but elegantly designed box, that opens up to reveal each album in a loving recreation of its original sleeve (including those with gatefolds). There is also a nice booklet that features full annotation of each album, plus liner notes from longtime Cohen confidante Pico Iyer.

Incidentally, Cohen’s reinventions of some of his greatest songs on the concert stage represent some of the most stunning music to be found on this entire collection. Playing in a huge room like London’s O2 Arena, Cohen amazingly captures the torchy ambiance of a jazz singer performing at some piano bar around last call. His band is likewise top notch. On the live recordings, they perform with such precision as to be nearly indistinguishable from something created in the studio.

For those who’d just as soon skip the live recordings though, there is also a box containing Cohen’s eleven studio albums appropriately titled The Complete Studio Albums Collection.

As for the more expansive Complete Columbia Albums Collection, this isn’t anywhere near so much as big, brassy and over the top a compilation of an artist’s collective work as other recent boxed sets out there from U2 and the like. But it just oozes class.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.